Friday, December 26, 2008

The Inherent Subjectivism of God-belief

Recent discussions with Christian visitors to my blog in the comments sections of Could the Christian God be Rational? and Another Response to David: The Anatomy of Legend and the Ruse of Revelation, confirm that ignorance and misunderstanding of the Objectivist rationale for rejecting theism is widespread. In this post I hope to shed some light on common errors Christian apologists might make in responding to Objectivist atheology. In future posts, I plan to interact directly with some more sophisticated efforts to answer Objectivist challenges to theism. In the present post I will focus on the comments which have been made on my blog, specifically to the effect that Christian god-belief avoids the charge of subjectivism.

In a comment dated 14 December 2008, David Parker asked:

You charge theists with metaphysical subjectivism based on the notion that existence should depend on some consciousness (human or divine). Now from reading some previous posts, I see that existence is defined as the sum of existents, which I agree with. But wait, if God exists then He does so necessarily and without dependence on any consciousness. So my question: How does that violate the primacy of existence if an existent, specifically God, is not the result of consciousness?

Similarly, Drew Lewis stated:

I believe that God exists objectively and based on no subjective cause. He didn't create Himself. I do believe that whatever else exists is created by Him.

In both cases, the objection here is that Christian god-belief is not subjective because it holds that the Christian god did not create itself. Now it’s well and good that a system of god-belief holds that its god did not create itself. Unfortunately, this does not sanitize god-belief from its inherent subjectivism. The Objectivist argument which I defend is not that god-belief is subjective because its god allegedly created itself. Rather, the argument is that god-belief is subjective because it ascribes metaphysical primacy to a subject (e.g., “God’s will”) over any and all of its objects, regardless of whether or not that subject is said to have created itself. That is where the root of subjectivism lies in the Christian worldview: in the relationship between its god as a subject and any objects distinct from itself.

To probe this matter, let’s ask some questions.

1. Is this god conscious?

Typically theists think of their god as a conscious being. It is supposed to know things, communicate, feel certain emotions (e.g., anger, wrath), desire things, issue commandments, plan things in advance, judge, etc. All of these activities presuppose consciousness because they involve conscious activity, so it would be strange if a theist denied consciousness to his god. The Westminster Confession of Faith says of the Christian god, among other things, that it is “most wise,” “most loving,” and “work[s] all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will.” So while Christianity’s formal declarations about the nature of its god may not explicitly state that it is supposed to be a conscious being, the fact that the faculty of consciousness is ubiquitously implied by many of the attributes ascribed to its god is unmistakable and undeniable. So in assembling an argument which addresses the claim that the Christian god is supposed to be a Christian god, the Objectivist is in no way mischaracterizing Christian theology. One only needs to go by what Christians themselves claim about their god.

Now let us ask:

2. What is the orientation between the Christian god as a subject of consciousness and the objects of its consciousness?

Since, as we saw above, the Christian god is supposed to possess consciousness, the question as to the orientation between the Christian god as a subject of consciousness, and its objects, is a fair question. In fact, it is one which theists should be prepared to address explicitly. To understand what this question is asking, let us identify the proper orientation in the relationship between man’s consciousness and the objects of which he is aware. The orientation which we have between subject and object is characterized by the primacy of existence: the objects of our consciousness hold metaphysical primacy over the subject of our consciousness. This means that the objects of our consciousness do not conform to our conscious intensions, but rather that the proper function of our consciousness is to conform to its objects. The primacy of existence means primacy of the object in the subject-object relationship. It is from this principle that we get our concept of objectivity.

Tom Porter clarifies the meaning of the primacy of existence principle when he writes:

The primacy of existence means both the absolute metaphysical independence of existence from cognition, and the absolute metaphysical priority of existence over cognition. It means the abject subordination of cognition to existence, the utter dependence of knowledge on its objects. (Ayn Rand’s Theory of Knowledge, p. 197)

According to this principle, then, an object is what it is, independent of what we know about it, or even if we don’t know anything about it. It is what it is, even if we are mistaken about it. An object will not alter or rearrange itself in order to conform to our errors or deficiencies in knowledge. To know an object, our cognition must conform to the object, both in our rudimentary awareness of it (e.g., I must turn my head to see the clock on the wall behind me) and in our identification of it (e.g., if both hands are pointed to 12:00, I would not insist that it indicates that it’s 4:30). In other words, to know an object, we need to gather information from the object itself. But the implications of the primacy of existence do not stop there. It tells us that objects do not conform to our conscious activity.

For example, suppose I see a stapler on my desk. My seeing the stapler does not bring the stapler into existence. It exists independent of my perception of it, my awareness did not cause it to exist. Now if I wish that the stapler be full of staples when in fact it has already run out, my wishing will not automatically reload it so that it is full again. Wishing does not have this power, and that is because the objects of consciousness hold metaphysical primacy over consciousness. If I want the stapler reloaded, I would have to physically reload it, and I could do this only if I have a set of staples to put into it. I could command that the stapler levitate itself to my hand if it is out of my reach, but will the stapler obey my command? No, it won't. Again, it exists independent of my conscious activity. I could imagine that the stapler is really an Asian elephant, but does my imagination turn the stapler into an elephant? No it does not: it remains a stapler all the same, and that’s because existence holds metaphysical primacy over consciousness, the objects of consciousness are what they are regardless of conscious activity. I could forget that my stapler is on my desk. But when I turn around, it’s still there. Why? Because it exists independent even of my forgetfulness, too. I could continue this experiment and test other conscious functions, but the result will always be the same: existence exists independent of consciousness. The primacy of existence cannot be defeated.

Now does this principle, the primacy of existence, characterize the orientation which the Christian god is supposed to enjoy between itself as a conscious subject and any objects in its awareness? It’s hard to see how a theistic believer would think so. A brief look at the Christian god’s career, as described in the bible, is sufficient to settle this question definitively. One need look no further than the opening verses of the book of Genesis, where we read that the god it describes “created the earth and the heaven.” Christians typically take this act of creation by their god to be comprehensive. For instance, Cornelius Van Til gives us the following statement:

Christianity holds that God is the creator of every fact... God’s thought is placed back of every fact. (Christian Theistic-Evidences, p. 88; quoted in Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 378)

Christians usually describe their god’s creation of the universe as an act of will. Again we have Van Til, who wrote:

God wills, that is, creates the universe. God wills, that is, by his providence controls the course of development of the created universe and brings it to its climax. (“Apologetics,” 1959)

Elsewhere Van Til wrote:

We now know that the world exists simply because God wills it. (“The Election of All Men in Christ,” The Great Debate Today, 1970)

Or, as one source puts it:

Fact: God willed the universe into being. Fact: He willed the universe into being by simply speaking it into existence instantaneously. References: Psalm 33:6,9 Psalm 148:5 Hebrews 11:3 Thought: He did not have to speak in order to create, but He did. God could have just thought the universe into being. Instead, He spoke it into being. He used His word to create.

Similarly, apologist Douglas Wilson, in his article The Metaphorical Word, writes:

God spoke the created universe into being. God the Father "God-the-Son-ed" light, and there was light. God the Speaker Worded the heavens and the earth, and so they came to be.

In addressing the question What Do Christians Believe? Answering Islam’s Terrell Smith states:

God is Creator of everything, this vast universe. All was created by His Word. He spoke it into being. It is written: (Genesis 1:3) And God said... and it was so. His Word is powerful... God's Word spoke the universe into being. His Word is powerful beyond our comprehension.

Likewise, in answer to the question Can you explain why God created the universe? Christian author Mike Scott writes:

All things came into being through the will of God. It was God's pleasure that the universe and everything in it be created.

And lastly, Jack Cottrell, in his Sovereignty and Free Will, explains:

God's will is the final and exclusively determinative power of whatsoever comes to pass. The nature of any created thing is what it is because of an act of determination in relation to it on the part of God.

In terms of essentials, all these sources are in agreement: a conscious subject holds metaphysical primacy over its objects. Here we can see this clearly when the Christian god is said to create the objects of its own consciousness by an act of consciousness, either by simply willing them into existence, speaking them into existence, commanding them into existence, etc. It not only creates its own objects, it assigns them their identity as well: things are what the Christian god chooses them to be.

Additionally, it can alter the identity of anything it created at will as well. For instance, in the second chapter of the gospel of John, we read about Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana. Here Jesus, as the incarnated god of Christianity, turns water into wine by an act of will. The water, as the object of the Christian god’s consciousness, obeys the intensions of the knowing subject. Every object obeys its commands. The waters of the Red Sea part upon its command; a few fishes and loaves of bread are multiplied to feed thousands upon its command; the earth quakes upon its command; dead people rise upon its command, etc.

This is certainly not the orientation between subject and object which man’s consciousness has. Where man’s experience, characterized by the metaphysical primacy of existence, is that the objects remain what they are regardless of what he knows, thinks, wishes, desires, commands or insists on, the Christian god is said to be able control its objects by its own conscious activity. Thus in the case of man the objects of consciousness hold metaphysical primacy over the subject of consciousness (i.e., objectivism), in the case of the Christian god the subject of consciousness is described as holding metaphysical primacy over its objects (i.e., subjectivism). It’s completely irrelevant that Christians claim their god did not create itself. The subjectivism of their god-belief is inherent in the orientation it is said to have between itself and everything distinct from it. As Drew Lewis reminds us, “whatever else exists is created by Him.”

In conclusion, we see that the primacy of existence (objectivism) applies in the case of man, but in the case of the Christian god we have the primacy of consciousness (subjectivism). This is what Christians are asking us to believe: that on the one hand, objects do not conform to consciousness (e.g., wishing doesn’t make it so), while on the other hand objects do conform to consciousness (e.g., wishing does make it so). While the primacy of consciousness is unavoidable for us human beings (e.g., reality will not conform to any human being’s wishes), the Christian wants us to believe that there exists a consciousness which does hold metaphysical primacy over its objects (e.g., reality will conform to wishes). Reality has its constraints, constraints which conscious activity will not be able to alter or overcome. However, in the fake environment of the imagination, an individual can project a consciousness which does overcome these constraints. We can imagine a consciousness which even put those constraints in place to start with, “in the beginning,” and thus has the power to defy them or withdraw them altogether. In its essence, religion is the glorification of an imaginary consciousness possessing precisely this power.

The problem for Christians is simply that they do not want to admit that their god is imaginary. When you point out the fact that their god is only imaginary, they tend to retreat in silence. And there’s a good reason why.

by Dawson Bethrick

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Could the Christian God Be Rational?

In the comments section of my blog Rival Philosophies of Fact, the question of whether or not the Christian god could be rational arose in discussion.
I wrote:

I’m in agreement with Justin that, on my understanding of what rationality is, neither concept could apply. I can give some fundamental reasons why this is so if you like.

Vytautas:

Why cannot God be rational?

First, we need a proper understanding of what rationality is. Rationality is not just a synonym for “understandable”; the two concepts have very distinct meanings. In fact, understandability presupposes rationality. Besides, there is no reason to multiply concepts meaning the same thing unnecessarily.

Rationality is the commitment to reason as one’s only means of acquiring and validating knowledge, and as his only guide to chosen action. By contrast, irrationality is the reliance on something other than reason (e.g., emotions, astrology, palm-reading, tea leaves, faith in invisible magic beings, etc.) to acquire and/or validate knowledge and guide his choices and actions. In general, rationality is compliance with reason, and irrationality is non-compliance with reason. If you look up ‘rational’ in the dictionary, even here you will find a close connection with reason.

Now reason is the faculty which identifies and integrates perceptual input. This faculty is made possible by the ability to form concepts from perceptual input (and higher concepts from the initial concepts formed on the basis of perceptual input).

It should not be difficult to recognize from this why man needs rationality. He needs rationality because he needs reason. And he needs reason because he needs knowledge in order to live, and reason is how he gets that knowledge. If he does not get the knowledge he needs to live, man will die. Like any living organism, man faces a fundamental alternative: life or death. So if man wants to live, he has no choice but to employ his faculty of reason.

When it comes to the Christian god, however, we have a much different story. The concept of rationality would not apply since the concept of reason could not apply. Take for example the claim that the Christian god is omniscient. It is all-knowing, possessing all knowledge. There’s nothing this god doesn’t know, so we are told. Would it make sense to say such a being is “rational”? Well, again, if rationality is a commitment to reason as one’s only means of acquiring and validating knowledge and his only guide to chosen actions, then clearly it wouldn’t make sense. An omniscient being would have no use for a means of acquiring and validating knowledge, since it is said to already possess all knowledge. There would be no knowledge for it to acquire or validate. Essentially, such a being could not learn. So there’d be no need for it to be committed to reason as its only means of acquiring and validating knowledge, for it already knows everything. To call such a being “rational” in this case would be to say it is committed to something it couldn’t possibly need. So it would be a stolen concept at this point.

Also, since the Christian god is said to be non-physical and bodiless, it wouldn’t have any sense organs. It wouldn’t have eyes, ears, a tongue, a nose, skin. It wouldn’t have nerve cells, a spine (yes, the Christian god is spineless), or a brain (yes, it’s brainless, too). Because it lacks sense organs, a nervous system and a brain, it would not have awareness via senses. Consequently, it would not have perceptual input from external stimuli, such as when we see an apple, a grove of trees, a baby, a city skyline. Consequently, it would have no perceptual input to identify and integrate. This is yet another reason why the Christian god would have no use for reason, and consequently no need to be committed to reason (i.e., rationality). So again, the theist has another stolen concept on his hands when he claims that his god is “rational.”

Another point is that, because the Christian god is said to be omniscient, it would not possess its knowledge in the form of concepts. I have already given my argument for this conclusion here. The point here is that, since reason is a conceptual process, a being which would not have its knowledge in the form of concepts would have no use for it. So to call such a being “rational” is, again, to say that it is committed to something it would have no use for and could not need. So here we have a third count of the fallacy of the stolen concept.

A final point is that, because the Christian god is said to be eternal, indestructible, omnipotent, etc., it would have no need or use for a guide for its choices and actions. Unlike man, who faces a fundamental alternative and can die if he acts on bad choices, the Christian god could do anything, and no harm would come to it. In fact, it could sit idle for all eternity, performing utterly no actions whatsoever, and it would still continue on as what it is just fine.

So these are some reasons why I would say that neither the concept ‘rational’ nor ‘irrational’ would apply to the Christian god. It would be, like a rock on a hillside or an asteroid in the cold of space, wholly arational, and for reasons which are not dissimilar: like the Christian god, rocks and asteroids have neither need nor use for a faculty for acquiring and validating knowledge, nor do they have either need or use for a guide to action. So consequently, they would have no need or use for committing themselves to such a faculty or guide.

by Dawson Bethrick

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Thoughts on Recent Comments by Vytautas

Recent comments by Vytautas, an occasional visitor to my blog, prompted some questions on my part, and he was kind enough to offer a reply. I haven’t posted a blog in a while, so I thought I would take this occasion to kill two birds with one stone.

I wrote:

When you say that you disagree in your initial point, are you saying that facts are not objective for anyone?

Vytautas:

Facts are objective for the Christian view as well any other view.

An examination of the Christian worldview does not bear this out, as I have shown. Did you read my blog? Perhaps we’re operating on two different understandings of objectivity. I have explained what I mean by objectivity in my blog. Did you have difficulty understanding it, or do you have a different understanding of what objectivity is that you can provide?

I asked:

Is this itself a fact?

Vytautas:

No, because a statement about the facts in general is not a statement about something objective, since it is subjective.

I’m not sure I follow this. When you say that “because a statement about facts in general is not a statement about something objective,” are you saying that facts in general are not objective? Or are you saying that statements about facts cannot be objective?

I wrote:

And if so, is it not itself an objective fact – i.e., a fact that is impervious to conscious intentions? What is the alternative to objectivity in your view, if not some form of subjectivism?

Vytautas:

We can know things objectively as well as subjectively.

I know that we can know things objectively. Would “God” be something you “know” subjectively?

Vytautas:

Why are there only facts and not statements about the facts?

I think there are statements about facts.

I asked:

Also, when you say that “sense objects are able to affect the mind,” what specifically do you mean by this, and why would you conclude from this that facts are not objective?

Vytautas:

A sense objects are identified by the senses, and the mind passively takes in information about the object. The passive act of apprehending an object affects the mind, but if the mind does not sense the object, then the object cannot be identified. I deny that facts are not objective.

I’m still not clear on what you mean by objects “affecting” the mind. Now it is true that if a mind does not perceive an object, it will not identify that object. However, sense objects are identified, not by the senses, but by the faculty of reason (specifically through conceptual integration). This is not a passive process. Conceptual integration is an active process. Perception is also an active process, but unlike conceptual integration, perception is not a *volitional* process, it is physiological, automatic. Both are active processes. What they do not do is *create* or *alter* the objects involved. The objects remain what they are regardless of who perceives them, how often they are perceived, what one calls them, or how one might miscategorize them. That’s the primacy of existence: the objects of consciousness exist and are what they are independent of conscious activity. In the case of a god, however, whose will is said to possess the power to create objects “ex nihilo” (i.e., not from materials which already exist) and alter them according to its preferences and wishes, the primacy of existence does not hold. On the contrary, what we have here is the primacy of consciousness: objects exist and are what the ruling consciousness wants them to be. On this view, existence conforms to consciousness. It is a complete reversal of the primacy of existence. The outcome from such a view is that facts could not be objective, since they conform to the stipulations of a subject which allegedly has power to bring them into existence and reshape them at will. The Van Til quote which I gave in my blog confirms precisely this.

I wrote:

How does that follow? It sounds like you’re suggesting that the mind functions optimally if there are no sense objects to begin with to “affect the mind.” Anyway, some clarity on what you were trying to say here would be helpful, because as it stands now it’s vague and unsubstantial.

Vytautas:

A mind has an intellect and a will. The intellect passively takes in information of the sense object, but the will must operate on the sense data to make it understandable.

Again, I do not think that the mind passively takes in information, since perception (the means by which we have awareness of objects existing independent of us) is an active process. You seem to agree that the mind does volitionally process that information, but when you say that “the will must operate on the sense data to make it understandable,” what specifically do you mean here? What operation does the will perform on the sense data?

Vytautas:

If the facts are not objective, then all of reality as we perceive it would be subjective.

Ultimately this is the nature of reality as Christianity would have us believe, since it is a creation of consciousness and everything within it conforms to someone’s will. You can’t get more subjective than that.

I asked:

When you say that “God does not change [the fact that JF Kennedy died Nov. 22, 1963] in space-time because he [planned] this since the foundations of the world,” specifically which fact are you talking about that your god "does not change"? That JFK is dead? Or that he died on a specific date?

Vytautas:

It is the fact that the assassination happened in history. The event is not repeatable because it all ready happened. Even if JFK rose from the dead, that fact would be a different from the historical fact. So the same historical event cannot happen twice.

Well, if you say so. I’ve heard other Christians make conflicting intimations as they seem to grant wider latitude to the notion of “God’s sovereignty,” sometimes even making much of the claim that the Christian god exists “out of time.” Indeed, if I believed in an omnipotent being which is supposed to have created the whole universe and is said to rule over everything within it with a sovereign will, I don’t know why I would believe that it could not change history once it’s been made. What would prevent it from doing this?

I asked:

You claim that “only an irrational god” would change whichever fact is in question here, but why?

Vytautas:

It is because an irrational god would change its plan when it is carried out.

Who said anything about changing a plan? Maybe the plan included resurrecting JFK, revising the date of his assassination, or deleting it from history, all along. I see no reason why a change of plan would be needed for any of these options. It would be very easy for an omnipotent god to do this, I would think. It could also make it “understandable,” at the very least to itself, thus satisfying your criterion of rationality (see below). It would also be very easy to claim that it had planned such things from the very beginning.

Vytautas:

An irrational god does not plan everything in advance so it does not know everything in advance.

I’m not sure why. Below you say that “irrational” means “not understandable,” but I don’t see anything “not understandable” about the situation you describe here. In fact, just by your description of it, I have understood it. There’s nothing “not understandable” about not planning everything in advance or not knowing everything in advance.

I wrote:

It seems that you would consider anything your god plans and does “rational,” even if it involved resurrecting JFK or revising the date on which he was assassinated.

Vytautas:

God is rational because he plans out history, but an irrational god is captive
to his creation.

I’m trying to integrate this with how you defined ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ below. So, to go by your definition, you’re saying that “God is [understandable] because he plans out history, but a [not understandable] god is captive to his creation.” Is that what you meant to say? I’m wondering how “rational” your position is, because the more you try to explain it, the harder and harder it is becoming to understand.

Vytautas:

We only know history after the fact. So we don’t know if God will resurrect JFK, but he will not revise the date on which he was assassinated because then God would be inconstant with what he has decreed.

If the Christian god had planned to revise the date on which JFK was assassinated, it wouldn’t be “inconstant with what he has decreed.” And unless you are the Christian god, you wouldn’t have full knowledge of what it has decreed. Given Christianity’s supernaturalism and its all-powerful, sovereign deity, there’s no reason why it should be supposed impossible that JFK was originally assassinated in 1976 and the Christian god revised the date back to 1963. We wouldn’t know either way unless your god wanted us to know. It seems quite unrealistic, on these presuppositions, for a finite, fallible and non-omniscient creature to say what an infinite, infallible, omniscient and omnipotent deity can or cannot do.

I asked:

Surely you believe that your god is capable of performing both alterations, no?

Vytautas:

I deny that God is capable of performing both alterations, since it would make him irrational.

And according to what you say below, “irrational” is, on your view, apparently just a synonym for “not understandable.” It’s not at all clear why performing one of the alterations mentioned above would preserve your god’s understandability, while performing the other (or both) wouldn’t.

I asked:

And if you believed your god had a purpose for resurrecting JFK or changing the date on which he was assassinated, would you call that “irrational”?

Vytautas:

No

This is a puzzling answer, given your above points. Above you just got through saying that you “deny that God is capable of performing both alterations, since it would make him irrational,” but now you seem to say that having a reason for doing one or the other would not be irrational. You’re losing me.

I wrote:

Justin gave some brief comments on why it’s quizzical at best to ascribe rationality or irrationality to a god’s behavior. I’m wondering if you could clarify what you were trying to say, and what you mean by “rational” and “irrational”.

Vytautas:

’Rational’ means understandable. And ‘irrational’ means not understandable.

I’ve never seen these definitions for these terms before. Is this from the bible? I would say that the doctrine of the trinity would make the Christian god irrational on this definition of ‘irrational’, since the doctrine of the trinity makes it utterly beyond comprehension. Various other Christian doctrines make Christianity as a worldview irrational on this conception of it. For instance, the doctrine of prayer. Jesus is portrayed repeatedly in the gospels telling believers to ask what they want and they’ll get it, because Jesus himself is faithful. But there always seems to be some reason why this fails. (See for instance here.) That’s “not understandable” given the promises we find attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. There’s also the doctrine of the Christian god’s glory. It already is said to possess all glory, but believers are supposed to “give God the glory” as well. Van Til referred to this as “the full bucket problem,” and did not have any clear (“understandable”) answer to it. I could go on, but by now you should see my point.

Also, on this definition of ‘rational’, I – an atheist, mind you – am rational, because I am understandable (sufficiently so for you to carry on a discussion with me). My worldview, because it is understandable (I certainly understand it), is also rational. But Christian apologists often insist that atheism is irrational (apparently, “not understandable”), even though I understand it, and that a worldview which rejects Christian theism cannot be rational (even though I understand my worldview, which is non-Christian and non-theistic).

Vytautas:

God is rational in relation to himself, but God is incomprehensible to man, so that he must reveal himself to man, if we are to know something about God.

I’m confident that one could say such things about anything he has imagined.

by Dawson Bethrick

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Rival Philosophies of Fact

Sources on presuppositionalism make it clear that, because of its “methodology” (see for instance here), the question of the Christian god’s existence cannot be settled on the basis of facts. For instance, Cornelius Van Til himself made this crystal clear when he wrote:

It is impossible and useless to seek to defend Christianity as an historical religion by a discussion of facts only. (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 7)

With resolute pronouncements such as this, what card-carrying presuppositionalist would disagree? Of course, this is the kind of attitude one might expect from a position that cannot be supported by facts in the first place. If appealing to facts is not sufficient to validate a position one holds on the basis of faith, he might as well come out and declare that “a discussion of facts only” is simply the wrong vehicle for substantiating that position. And lo, that’s precisely what Van Til does.

Consider for a moment some of the major tenets of what Christianity teaches, tenets which everyone is expected to accept as factual, but without factual support. For instance, that the Christian deity is real, that it created the universe (“the earth and the heaven”), that it created man in its own image, that it chose a people as its favorites (the ancient Israelites), that it sent its only begotten son to die a horrific death in order to “redeem” anyone who is bamboozled by all these and other teachings of the sacred storybook. If all of these claims are supposed to be factual, why cannot “a discussion of facts only” serve in defending them? Does Van Til think that a discussion of something other than facts is needed to defend “Christianity as an historical religion”? If so, what is this other something?

This is where Van Til raised the issue of which philosophy of facts best equips a thinker to deal with the individual facts he discovers in the world. But we would be wrong to assume that this means that Van Til is actually concerned with preserving the integrity of a fact-based way of looking at the world. On the contrary, his aim here is to hijack the issue of facts and seat it on mystical presuppositions. Hence the name of his apologetic artifice, presuppositionalism.

Now the bible does not lay out any explicit theory of facts. Indeed, it seems not even to speak of facts in any intelligent manner. It certainly does not spell out a philosophy of facts. Its authors were clearly more concerned with invoking the wrath of an invisible magic being, endorsing doctrinal positions on the basis of faith, shaming readers into submission, prostituting their minds and filling their imaginations with horrific fantasies and bizarre teachings. But this is not to say that an implicit understanding of the nature of facts cannot be ascertained from the contents of the bible.

Without a doubt, the biblical worldview characterizes all facts as dependent on the will of its deity. Today’s theologians and apologists are explicit in their affirmation of such characterizations. On this view, facts are created, which means: they do not exist independent of consciousness, in particular of the supernatural consciousness which is claimed to have created them. Consequently, however ‘fact’ is defined by today’s defenders of Christianity, one thing is certain: the biblical portrait represents facts as inherently subjective, that is: they depend on and conform to the dictates of a ruling subject whose say-so is the final court of appeal in determining their nature at any given moment. The Christian “philosophy of fact” is subjective because it assumes the metaphysical primacy of the subject in the subject-object relationship. On this view, facts are whatever the ruling subject wants them to be. This is the essential metaphysical view which underlies the notion that wishing makes it so. In this context, subjectivism is essentially the view that reality, facts and truth are obedient to the dictates of some privileged consciousness.

Contrast the Christian view of facts with the objective theory of facts. Where the Christian view of facts clearly seats facts on the dictates of an omnipotent subject – thus affirming the primacy of the subject in the subject-object relationship, the objective theory of facts is based on the primacy of the object in the subject-object relationship. This theory recognizes that facts are what they are independent of consciousness, of any consciousness, that facts do not bend or reshape themselves in response to wishes, desires, commands, threats, insults, or protestation. It is on the basis of the objective theory of facts that one makes statements such as “wishing doesn’t make it so” or “Mt. McKinley is located in Alaska whether anyone realizes it or not.” According to the objective theory of facts, if facts were actually based on the dictates of consciousness (e.g., will, wishing, preference, etc.), it would not make any sense to affirm anything as factual; all it would take is another consciousness to come along and say it’s not a fact, and reality would obey. For this reason, it should be clear that the Christian is borrowing from a non-Christian conception of facts whenever he makes statements like “God exists even if no one believes it.” For on the Christian view, as we have seen, facts conform to consciousness, which can only mean that facts are not objective according to the Christian view.

Van Til made it clear that, on the Christian view, we cannot rely on facts, for they have no inherent stability whatsoever:

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 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, embedded 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 view, it may be a fact this moment that Mt. McKinley is located in Alaska. But, since the Christian god “may at any time take one fact and set it into a new relation to created law,” who but the ruling consciousness knows where Mt. McKinley may be in the next moment? The ruling consciousness may decide to relocate it in southern Japan, or Tanzania, or Laos. The flexibility that Van Til reserves for facts in relation to principles of thought certainly affords this.

Now Van Til is explicit in telling us that his worldview needs this kind of facts-in-flux view of things “in order to make room for miracles.” And it’s not just that facts can change at random; since ‘random’ is actually an epistemological concept, the changes that facts undergo in this context would be random so far as the believer is concerned. But this is a mere incidental outcome that the believer has to deal with in his worldview. Even more than this, since this view represents facts as subject to deliberate, intentional change, there would be no identifiable causality to the changes taking place traceable to the nature of the facts themselves. The changes that facts would undergo, on Van Til’s view, would bear no relation to their nature, but depend completely on the whim of an invisible magic being whose “counsel” or “plan” is an utter mystery to the believer. He just has to go along with the flow, imagining that anything and everything that happens around him is being choreographed by a supernatural, reality-ruling consciousness whose exercise of will historically (per the bible at any rate) includes such notable and examples as turning water into wine, enabling men to walk on unfrozen water,

According to the Christian “philosophy of fact,” facts are creations of a supernatural consciousness. On this view, facts are essentially wished into existence by an omnipotent conscious being. This is explicitly held to be the case for all facts. Writes Van Til:

God is the creator of every fact. (Christian Theistic Evidences, p. 88; quoted in Bahnsen, Van Til's Apologetic, p. 378.)

Elsewhere Van Til writes:

The Christian starts his reasoning from the presupposition that what God, through Christ, says in the Scriptures is true. Accordingly all “facts” are God and Christ created and directed to the consummation of history.” (“An Uncertain Sound: An Evaluation Of The Philosophy Of Hendrik Hart,” 1971)

Christian apologist Mike Warren similarly exclaims:

All facts are God-created, God-interpreted facts.” (Christian Civilization is the Only Civilization)

Of course, note that when statements like these are made, they appear as bare assertions, announcements which are to be taken on faith, on authority, on the implied threat of psychological or spiritual sanction. Readers are expected to feel compelled to accept these claims without objective support because they’re supposed to believe that something bad will happen to them – either in the here and now of reality, or in the afterlife which awaits – if they don’t’ accept them.

Now a fundamental problem should be immediately obvious here. The Christian wants us to accept as fact the claim that his god exists. We are also told that, for the Christian, “the most basic fact of all facts is the existence of the triune God” (Common Grace and the Gospel, ch. 1). So it is a fact, we are told, that the Christian god exists. But we are also told that this “God is the creator of every fact,” that “all facts are God-created.” So was the fact that this god exists, also created by this same god? This seems quite illogical. To create anything, a creator-god would first have to exist. A thing cannot create the fact of its own existence. The presuppositionalist must allow an exception to the rule here, but this would split facts into two mutually exclusive categories, thus requiring duplicitous provisions in the Christian theory of facts. It would, in the case of its god’s existence for instance, need to allow for at least some facts to be uncreated. But if any facts can be uncreated, why couldn’t all other facts be uncreated? A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.

Elsewhere Van Til writes

all facts in this universe are under God’s control” (“The Resurrection As A Part Of Christian Truth,” The Banner, 1939, Vol. 74, p. 339)

While this statement focuses on the facts which obtain within the universe proper, the same subordination of those facts to the dictates of the ruling consciousness is maintained. Anything we take as factual in the universe is subject to revision according to the ruling consciousness’ divine whims. According to a rational worldview, It’s a fact that apples come from apple trees. But on the Christian worldview, this is only factual so long as the Christian god desires to keep it that way. It could decide to change this fact, such that apples instead come from cucumber plants or from fish anuses. In the end, on the Christian view, it’s the desires of the Christian god which are absolute, not the facts we discover in reality. Talk about reducing a worldview to absurdity!

But this systemic embrace of absurdity at such a fundamental level of thought does not keep believers today from endorsing it. For instance, in his blog entry What Are the Facts? (Repeat), Gavin Beers quotes Christian apologist R.J. Rushdoony as follows:

For the Christian, all factuality is God-created and the product of His eternal purpose; all facts are thus totally rational, becasue [sic] the mind of God is behind them, and their reality is thus more than physical and natural.

The view expressed here repeats the same major problem for the Christian "philosophy of fact" which we saw above, for it presupposes that for facts to be rational, "the mind of God" must be "behind them." In other words, all facts must have been created by the Christian god. Without this element of having been created by the Christian god, so the reasoning goes, no fact would be intelligible. Again, this can only mean that, if it is a fact that the Christian god exists, either the Christian god created this fact (which, as we saw above, is nonsensical), or qua fact it is unintelligible. This is quite a dilemma for the Christian, but it is unavoidable given the predominant view of facts affirmed in these statements. Since to say that a being created the fact of its own existence would commit the fallacy of the stolen concept (by characterizing such a fact as the product of a creative act, such a claim would require that the fact in question did not obtain prior to its creation, and yet the alleged fact in question is that the creator of all facts exists), the unavoidable implications of the view expressed here render it completely absurd and nonsensical. And yet, this is what can be expected from the Christian “philosophy of fact” that Van Til affirms as essential to his worldview and its proper defense.

The Christian view would then need to affirm two fundamentally different conceptions of facts, one pertaining to uncreated facts (which, per the statements quoted above, are apparently not allowed) and one pertaining to created facts. And even though it’s clear that Van Til and other presuppositionalists do not make such provision, such duplicity would be required in order to stave off the absurd internal implications that have hitherto been identified, and yet it would also create further problems. For analytic philosophers, this view of factuality seems quite a death knell. Facts which have traditionally been taken as “necessary” suddenly become “contingent,” since all facts on the Christian view were “created.” The fact that 2+2=4, for instance, was “created” by the Christian god. Of course, not all Christians would agree with this implication; but given the exhaustive pervasiveness of the presuppositionalists’ assertions, absurdities like this are an unavoidable by-product of the Christian theory of facts.

But the absurdities do not stop there. The problem is bigger than just its implications for the fact that 2+2=4. If facts are dependent upon someone’s will, as the Christian worldview holds, then obviously those facts have no necessary content of their own. Facts, on such a view, are not necessary, but utterly contingent, contingent upon the will of the being said to have the power to create and alter them. On such a basis, one could never claim to really know any facts, for any fact he might claim to know could be altered at any time without his knowing it. Certainly believers do not expect their god to seek their consent or approval before altering any facts it has chosen to alter. One might say, for instance, that it’s a fact that dogs are mammals; but since this fact was “created” by the Christian god and this god can revise it at any time, it could change: dogs could suddenly become reptiles on this view. Christians like to reply to this kind of objection by saying that their god has a rational nature, that it wouldn’t act against its nature, etc., none of which is very convincing against the relief of the sovereignty it is said to possess over the universe and its means of revelation to man via miracles. After all, we can affirm the fact that John F. Kennedy is dead, but the Christian god, if it were real, could resurrect the assassinated president at any time if it wanted to. Again, its wants, desires, wishes and whims hold metaphysical primacy over the domain of factuality. Ironically enough, such responses in essence come across as de facto denials of divine omnipotence: while they claim that their god is omnipotent, it has apparently chosen not to exercise it outside the confines of a self-inflicted straitjacket. Why? Appeals to “divine rationality” ring hollow, since no Christian would say that his god’s miraculous interventions in history, as recorded in the Old and New Testaments, were irrational. Such “rationality” as the Christian conceives of it includes not only the “natural order” of things as we actually perceive them in the world, but also any revision of them (e.g., miracles), however temporary.

And let’s not forget another important doctrine of Christianity: the doctrine of malevolent spirits. While Christians might claim that their god would not transform dogs from mammals into reptiles, who is to say that demons and devils cannot or would not? Indeed, the problem still persists, especially when we factor in the claim that supernatural beings other than just the Christian god are said to lurk “back of” the objects we perceive in the world. Mischievous and nefarious, demons, devils and other spooks are supposed also to inhabit the supernatural realm and wield influence over the “created order”; indeed, the bible itself claims that the leader of these malevolent spirits, Satan, is “the prince of this world” (cf. Jn. 12:31, 14:30, 16:11). As supernatural beings which have the power to take possession of human beings (cf. Mt. 4:24, 8:16, 28, 9:32, 12:22; Mk. 1:32, 5:15-18) and manipulate, deceive, and misguide them, they too have the ability to meddle with man’s efforts to know facts.

So really, what we have in the Christian theory of facts is not fully disclosed by its spokesmen: not only does the Christian god hold metaphysical primacy over the facts of the world, but so do other alleged supernatural beings.

Of course, Christians themselves have shown that, even on their own terms, it is notoriously difficult to distinguish “the supernatural” from the imaginary. I surmise that this is because there is no fundamental distinction between the two. In the end, since Christianity actually asserts the primacy of the supernatural over the realm of facts, believers are really telling us that the imaginary holds metaphysical primacy over the actual, since they claim such primacy on behalf of their imaginary spirits.

Notice how all this systematically destroys any potential for knowledge of the world. If any of these spirits are able to alter the identity of things which exist (such as turning water into wine), or cause them to act against their natures (such as enabling human beings to walk on unfrozen water), who is to say that none of them could alter our memory of the past, or even change history without us knowing it? Surely the Christian god is not bound to the temporal order of the universe, is it? Since the Christian god can at any time, we are told, take any fact and put it into a new relationship with created law, who is to say our memory of things we have done or witnessed could ever be accurate? I remember getting my driver’s license when I was 16 years old, for instance. But if I believed that such a being as the god Christianity describes and worships were real, that memory could be completely false. Maybe I was 18 when I got my license, or 26, or maybe I never got one, or maybe I was born with it already in hand and just don’t know this. Or, it could be true today that I got my license at 16, and false tomorrow, and then true again the next day. What is to stop an omnipotent being from revising the past in such a manner? Does the believer himself presume to be able to stop this? If he says that no one, including the god he claims to worship, can alter the past once it has happened, then clearly he’s telling us that neither his god nor any other being is truly omnipotent, or at any rate that his god has the same relationship to the past that we have. If he says that his god can go back in time and revise history, but simply wouldn’t, then the believer sets himself as the author of his god’s plan: his god does whatever he imagines it does. And of course, what would keep an actually existing sovereign deity from deceiving me into believing that I ever got my driver’s license in the first place, let alone at 16 years old? Blank out.

Avoiding a “direct appeal to facts” is essential to the presuppositional approach to defending Christian theism or settling the debate between believers and non-believers. As Van Til himself states:

The method of reasoning by presupposition may be said to be indirect rather than direct. The issue between believers and non-believers in Christian theism cannot be settled by a direct appeal to “facts” or “laws” whose nature and significance is [sic] already agreed upon by both parties to the debate.(The Defense of the Faith, p. 100)

Here Van Til adds a new qualification to the treatment of facts in his apologetic treatment. He says that the debate between believer and non-believer “cannot be settled by a direct appeal to ‘facts’ or ‘laws’ whose nature and significance is [sic] already agreed upon by both parties to the debate.” Of course, if the believer holds that “God is the creator of every fact” and that “all ‘facts’ are God and Christ created and directed to the consummation of history,” as we have already seen Van Til affirm, while the non-believer (particularly if he subscribes to an objective view of reality) recognizes that facts are not subject to conscious intentions, then there probably is no such agreement between them. On the Christian view, facts are creations of consciousness, open to revision according to divine whim, while on an objective view facts are what they are independent of consciousness, regardless of who likes it, regardless of who disapproves. The two positions are diametrically opposed from their very foundations. And yet, since both the believer and the non-believer live in the same reality, they do in fact have many points of ‘common ground’ in metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, only the believer has a confessional motivation to deny this fact outright, or interpret it in favor of protecting his confessional investment by means of assimilation.

Notice how Van Til puts defining importance on whether or not the nature and significance of facts are “agreed upon by both parties to the debate.” Why should their agreement or disagreement on these things matter if in fact the facts in question are indeed factual? Shouldn’t the fact that they are factual matter more? Apparently not for Van Til. Van Til takes the Christian command to “come out and be ye separate” (II Cor. 6:17) very seriously. It seems that what is of primary importance for Van Til, since he names no facts to begin with, is division between believer and non-believer for the sake of division as such. Agreement with the non-believer is to be avoided at all costs, even at the cost of an objective understanding of facts. The impulse for all this is the believer’s determination to imagine a supernatural consciousness “back of” everything we perceive and discover in the world. Van Til makes this crystal clear when he writes:

I could believe in nothing else if I did not, as back of everything, believe in this God. (“Toward A Reformed Apologetic,” 1972)

Since upholding and defending such imaginations as if they reflected “absolute reality” – a reality that is even more real than the reality in which we live, move and have our being on a daily basis – is of prime importance to someone like Van Til, it’s no surprise that the antithetical divide between himself and those who do not indulge in such imaginations is emphasized like this.

An obvious outcome given Van Til’s stated view is that, if the non-believer disagrees with the believer at any point, this fact itself is a creation of his god. This points right back to the alleged creator of facts as the cause for such disagreement and division. It makes no sense to hold the non-believer accountable for his disagreement with the believer, or for any position he might happen to hold, for if he holds a certain position, on Van Til’s view the fact that he holds it is just another of his god’s creations: his god obviously wanted it this way. The unavoidable implications of determinism serve only to reduce any accountability on man’s part to “God made me do it.” So the common presuppositionalist strategy of urging the non-believer to “account for” his non-belief or any position he might affirmatively take on any issue, is rather farcical: the non-believer only needs to point out that the apologist, according to his own presuppositions, is looking in the wrong place for the explanations he has asked for.

Instead of focusing on any specific facts themselves, Van Til thinks the debate stems from something prior to facts. Van Til explains:

The question is rather as to what is the final reference-point required to make the “facts” and “laws” intelligible. The question is as to what the “facts” and “laws” really are. Are they what the non-Christian methodology assumes that they are? Are they what the Christian theistic methodology presupposes they are? (The Defense of the Faith, p. 100)

Van Til makes it clear that, for his worldview, facts are clearly not primaries. Something takes priority to facts, and logically, whatever this something is that exists before them must be something other than factual, for he makes it clear that there is something which precedes facts. Van Til’s statement here would serve no purpose if that which comes before facts is just another bunch of facts; it must be something other than facts, it must be non-factual. Van Til calls it “the final reference-point,” but does not explicitly state what he means by this in this section of his book. To find clues as to what Van Til means here, we look further in his book:

The final point of reference in all predication must ultimately rest in some mind, divine or human. It is either the self-contained God of Christianity or the would-be autonomous man that must be and is presupposed as the final reference point in every sentence that any man utters. (Ibid., p. 215.)

What Van Til states here supplies a portion of the context missing from his previous statement about the need to identify “the final reference-point required to make the ‘facts’ and ‘laws’ intelligible.” And it is quite clear: for Van Til, “the final-reference point” which makes laws and facts intelligible must be subject in the subject-object relationship, either human or supernatural. So far as I can find, Van Til provides no argument for his view that “the final point of reference in all predication must ultimately rest in some mind, divine or human.” Indeed, it is not entirely clear what exactly this is supposed to mean, so I have little choice but to interpret it literally. A point of reference would, as I understand it, be some object to which one’s identifications (which would include predication) and judgments refer. Van Til may have meant something else (he seems to treat the objects of cognition as unnecessary), but if so I would say that he has expressed himself quite poorly. Even some of Van Til’s own devoted followers have complained about Van Til’s “’torturous English’, his redundant and unclear style, his penchant for sloganeering, and his disorganized presentation of themes” (Michael Butler, “The Transcendental Argument for God’s Existence,” in Schlissel’s The Standard Bearer: A Festschrift for Greg L. Bahnsen, p. 70). Regardless, it seems that Van Til can only mean that, for his “philosophy of fact,” a subject must hold primacy over all objects in order for predication of facts to be possible. From the very outset, this rules out the primacy of objects in the subject-object relationship, which means it rules out all objectivity. On an objective orientation, the “final point of reference” would the facts of reality themselves, beginning with the fact that existence exists, since it is understood on the objective view that facts obtain independent of consciousness; they do not conform to conscious intentions. The “the final point of reference” would not be a mind, as if a mind could dictate what reality consists of or what it should be. A mind needs content, just as consciousness requires an object, and that content must come from somewhere. On an objective view, that content ultimately comes from what is perceived, the objects of awareness; on the theistic view, the mind creates its own content, consciousness creates its own objects.

So what about Van Til’s last questions here? Are facts “what the non-Christian methodology assumes that they are?” Or, “are they what the Christian theistic methodology presupposes they are?” To sort this out, Van Til proposes the following two-step apologetic procedure:

The answer to this question cannot be finally settled by any direct discussion of “facts.” It must, in the last analysis, be settled indirectly. The Christian apologist must place himself upon the position of his opponent, assuming the correctness of his method merely for argument’s sake, in order to show him that on such a position the “facts are not facts and the “laws” are not laws. He must also ask the non-Christian to place himself upon the Christian position for argument’s sake in order that he may be shown that only upon such a basis do “facts” and “laws” appear intelligible. (Ibid., pp. 100-101)

Regarding the second step, I have already noted its parallels to sampling drug use. This step of the presuppositional apologetic very much resembles the kind of tactic an addict might use to goad non-users into the world of substance abuse. “Just try it. Once you do, you’ll see how everything in this crazy world finally makes sense!” I prefer a more scientific route, analyzing the chemical causality of the substance on the brain, thus understanding why the drug alters its users’ behavior so drastically. This is essentially what I have done above, by pointing out how the Christian theory of facts is fundamentally subjective, thus obliterating the very concept ‘fact’ in its destructive wake.

The very last statement Van Til makes is especially curious, given the way he words it. He wants to show the non-believer that “only upon such a basis do ‘facts’ and ‘laws’ appear intelligible.” Van Til’s own pupil, Greg Bahnsen, points out that “the Bible distinguishes between appearance and reality” (Always Ready, p. 181). Even Proverbs 14:12 warns that “there is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” So in Van Til’s case, while “facts” and “laws” as his worldview conceives of them may appear “intelligible,” his own worldview tells us that this may be only a mirage. Van Til needs to give more assurance than his customary unsupported assertions and catchy slogans to make his case. And given the points we’ve seen so far, such a venture would be hopeless from the very start.

But what about what “the non-Christian methodology” assumes facts to be? Isn’t this racked with problems of its own? Well, it depends on which “non-Christian methodology” we’re talking about. A non-Christian methodology would be any which is not Christian, and there’s lots of those. Most thinkers, regardless of religiosity, do not walk around with a fully developed “philosophy of fact” formulated in their minds. However, in spite of its difficulties, some general features of fact theory can and should be explicitly articulated, specifically with regard to the orientation between subject and object. A philosophy of facts which human beings can apply in their lives must at minimum comply with the primacy of existence, and do so without compromise. Compromising the primacy of existence can only lead, if left uncorrected, to a blurring between reality and fantasy, which is the very bloodline of a mystical worldview (such as Christianity). To my knowledge, Objectivism is the only worldview which identifies the primacy of existence as a fundamental principle guiding human cognition, and which takes it seriously in its effort to develop a worldview consistent with that principle. Given the incontestable truth of this principle, the only philosophy of fact worthy of its name must stand in accordance with the primacy of existence, the essence of the principle of objectivity, for facts are objective, and a worldview dealing in facts must provide understanding of this from its very foundations. At the very least we can conclude that one should not look to Christianity for such principles.

by Dawson Bethrick

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Reply to Tennant on Theistic Foundationalism vs. the Objectivist Axioms

In the round of comments following my blog Another Response to David, Part 6: Signs of the Legend, commenter David Parker identified his worldview’s starting point as the statement “the Bible is the Word of God.” I had raised a number of brief objections to this statement serving as a genuine starting point. For the record, here is what I had written:
Well, for one thing, your founding affirmation assumes the truth of mine; mine would have to be true before you could chance to propose yours. See for instance my blog Theism and Its Piggyback Starting Point. Also, in tandem with my previous point, the affirmation you propose as your founding truth is not conceptually irreducible, which means that it assumes prior truths which would need to be identified and explored for any prior assumptions they make. Also, the statement "the Bible is the Word of God" does not identify a perceptually self-evident fact. Even if we accept it as true, it would have to be the conclusion of prior inference, which itself would ultimately need to be rooted in the perceptually self-evident. We could spend days and weeks exploring why one might accept it as truth, where as 'existence exists' identifies a fact which is perceptually self-evident, undeniable, inescapable. Another concern is that it is not undeniable: I can deny the assertion that "the Bible is the Word of God" and I am in no way undercutting truths which I do affirm or contradicting facts which I accept as facts. Another problem (and I'll stop with this), is: what exactly is it referring to? It certainly does not have the scope of reference that 'existence exists' has (since 'existence' is the widest of all concepts, it includes everything which exists), and seems to be irrelevant to pretty much everything. Its applicability is wholly artificial, forced as it is as an interpretative filter on a reality which has no need for such notions. To justify the claim that it has relevance in our world, the one affirming this claim would probably resort to the claim that the universe and everything within it were created by said "God." But this again is not perceptually self-evident; that the universe was created by an act of consciousness (e.g., "God spoke the universe into existence") is a claim for which I have certainly seen no good evidence whatsoever.
In essence, my objections are that the statement “the Bible is the Word of God” could not be fundamental because:
(a) It assumes prior truths, for instance the truth of my worldview’s starting point, and consequently could not be fundamental.

(b) The statement “the Bible is the Word of God” is not conceptually irreducible (i.e., it consists of terms which can and must be defined in terms of prior concepts)

(c) The statement “the Bible is the Word of God” does not identify a perceptually self-evident fact (even if it were true, the statement in question does not denote a fact given in immediate awareness, but would need to be a conclusion of prior inference)

(d) It is not undeniably true (I can deny the claim that “the Bible is the Word of God” without contradicting genuinely fundamental facts)

(e) The statement “the Bible is the Word of God” does not identify a universally attendant fact

(f) The statement “the Bible is the Word of God” is far too narrow to serve as a starting point

(g) Justification of the statement “the Bible is the Word of God” as a founding principle would resort to other claims (e.g., “the universe was created by God”) which themselves are not fundamental, perceptually self-evident, conceptually irreducible, etc.
In addition to these points, one could also raise other objections, which I’ll get to below.

In my blog Probing Mr. Manata’s Poor Understanding of the Axioms, I listed the following qualifying criteria which an axiom needs to satisfy in order to be an axiom:
It names a perceptually self-evident fact
Its truth is not inferred from prior truths
Its truth is conceptually irreducible
Its truth is implicit in all perception
Its truth is implicit in all knowledge and any statement
Its truth must be assumed even in denying it
My points above jointly serve to disqualify the statement “the Bible is the Word of God” as an axiom for failure to meet these conditions, and consequently I conclude that “the Bible is the Word of God” cannot serve as a fundamental principle for a rational worldview.

Now it should be clear that the axioms proposed by Objectivism fulfill these criteria. Those axioms are the axioms of existence, consciousness, and identity. The facts that existence exists (i.e., there is a reality), that consciousness is consciousness of something (i.e., that a subject is aware of some object), and that to exist is to be something specific, finite and distinct from anything else that exists, are self-evident, independent of “prior truths” (for there could be no truths prior to these facts), indefinable in terms of prior concepts (i.e., conceptually irreducible; to what would any “prior concepts” refer? Blank out), implicit in any act of perceiving and in any knowledge, claim, thought, memory, emotion, exercise of volition, etc., and would have to be true in order to be challenged, denied, ignored, etc.

Detractors of Objectivism often object to the axioms on the basis that there are no self-evident facts, that “self-evident” is meaningless, or that what is self-evident to one person is not self-evident to another. Sometimes they try to invent other reasons for challenging the axioms, but they are doomed to result in futility.

Peikoff presents an elegant illustration, in the form of a mock dialogue in which the defender of these axioms assumes for the sake of argument that they are false, in order to show how they are in fact inescapably true and fundamental, even in an attempt to deny their truth:
A. “Your objection to the self-evident has no validity. There is no such thing as disagreement. People agree about everything.”

B. “That’s absurd. People disagree constantly, about all kinds of things.”

A. “How can they? There’s nothing to disagree about, no subject matter. After all, nothing exists.”

B. Nonsense. All kinds of things exist. You know that as well as I do.”

A. “That’s one. You must accept the existence axiom even to utter the term ‘disagreement’. But, to continue, I still claim that disagreement is unreal. How can people disagree, since they are unconscious beings who are unable to hold ideas at all?”

B. “Of course people hold ideas. They are conscious beings – you know that.”

A. “There’s another axiom. But even so, why is disagreement about ideas a problem? Why should it suggest that one or more of the parties is mistaken? Perhaps all of the people who disagree about the very same point are equally, objectively right?”

B. “That’s impossible. If two ideas contradict each other, they can’t both be right. Contradictions can’t exist in reality. After all, things are what they are. A is A.” (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 9-10)
Here we see how a thinker who began by disputing the truth of the axioms, ends up not only assuming them, but protesting that they are true when their defender, taking the role of a devil’s advocate, goes along with the view that they are untrue. Peikoff continues:
Existence, consciousness, identity are presupposed by every statement and by every concept, including that of “disagreement.” (They are presupposed even by invalid concepts, such as “ghost” or “analytic” truth.) In the act of voicing his objection, therefore, the objector has conceded the case. In any act of challenging or denying the three axioms, a man reaffirms them, no matter what the particular content of his challenge. The axioms are invulnerable. (Ibid., p. 10)
Not only are the axioms invulnerable, they’re inescapable as well. As Porter points out:
Every philosopher must start somewhere, and wherever he starts, he must include the validity of these three axiomatic concepts [‘existence’, ‘consciousness’, ‘identity’] in his starting lineup. So wherever he claims to start, he really starts here. He has to; they’re axiomatic. (Ayn Rand’s Theory of Knowledge, p. 209)
In his effort to find advice on how to respond to my points of criticism, David forwarded my objections to Christian blogger Dominic Bnonn Tennant, who posted his own thoughts in response to my criticism in his blog The Chronological Priority Objection revisited.

Tennant begins his response to my points of criticism with the following confession:
I must confess I don’t really understand Dawson’s argument.
Tennant opens his critique with the announcement that he doesn’t “really understand” my argument. Does this keep him from launching into a response of his own? No, unfortunately, it does not. He continues:
He seems to be assuming that any first principle which implicitly presupposes some other self-evident proposition must then defer to that prior proposition.
It is not clear to me what Tennant means here by “defer to that prior proposition.” One of my criticisms was that, if the statement proposed as a “first principle” in fact presupposes more fundamental truths, then for this reason alone it would not be a “first principle.” If it is conceded that the statement “the Bible is the Word of God” presupposes more fundamental truths, then obviously that statement itself could not be considered fundamental. It won’t do to begin our philosophizing in mid-stream. The call to identify one’s starting point is a call to identify one’s irreducible primary. Since the statement “the Bible is the Word of God” in fact rests on more fundamental assumptions, it is disqualified as an irreducible primary and therefore cannot be a “first principle.” It's simply not first logically.

My point (a) above recognizes that, if a statement logically presupposes the truth of prior affirmations, then clearly those prior affirmations would need to be true in order for the stated principle to hold, and those prior affirmations would be more fundamental to the principle in question. This should not be controversial. Consider: if a statement presupposes prior assumptions, and those prior assumptions turn out to be untrue, then the integrity of any supposed hierarchy involving those untrue assumptions would be fatally compromised internally.

It is important at this point to draw attention to the principle of reduction. The principle of reduction is a necessary component for any epistemological system which recognizes the fact that knowledge is hierarchical in nature, i.e., that some knowledge rests on and presupposes the truth of more fundamental knowledge, that there is a logical dependence of some truths on more fundamental truths. Leonard Peikoff explains the principle of reduction as follows:
Reduction is the means of connecting an advanced knowledge to reality by traveling backward through the hierarchical structure involved, i.e., in the reverse order of that required to reach the knowledge. “Reduction” is the process of identifying in logical sequence the intermediate steps that relate a cognitive item to perceptual data. Since there are options in the detail of a learning process, one need not always retrace the steps one initially happens to take. What one must retrace is the essential logical structure. (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 133)
Peikoff makes it clear that reduction of knowledge found at the higher levels of the knowledge hierarchy is logically reducible to more fundamental knowledge. Note that Tennant seems concerned that chronological relations between items of knowledge are at the forefront of the criticism I offered in response to the notion that the statement “the Bible is the Word of God” can serve as one’s foundational principle. It is hard to see how one could intelligibly suppose that the statement “the Bible is the Word of God” could be either chronologically or logically fundamental, assuming no prior truths whatsoever, either in terms of logical dependence or in terms of discovery and learning processes. At any rate, Peikoff makes it clear that the principle of reduction is concerned with identifying and making explicit the “logical structure” of an item of knowledge.

It should also be borne in mind that propositions per se cannot be ultimately fundamental. As I explained in my blog Paul’s “Necessary Propositions”:
Propositions are not irreducible primaries. They are composed of concepts, and without concepts there would be no propositions. Concept-formation is a volitional process; nothing in reality forces us to undertake it. When we look out at the world, we see concrete entities, not "propositions." We form propositions to identify what we conceive, remember, project, etc., but only after we have formed concepts which identify the entities, attributes, actions, etc. Nothing forces us to do this, we do this because we choose to do this. If the content of any given proposition is valid concepts denoting data we have gathered from objects we have discovered (i.e., facts), and its purpose is to denote those facts, then that proposition would be describing fact(s). Must the proposition "existence exists" describe a fact? It does denote a basic fact, but not because the proposition itself "must" do so. It does because of a human epistemological need, a need which we have as a result of our desire for knowledge, and knowledge requires a starting point. The proposition itself has no needs of its own to satisfy, as if it were going to be starved if we do not feed it something, or as if it had the ability to condemn us to an eternity of torment unless we sacrifice burnt offerings to it.
The point is that legitimate knowledge of reality is reducible to the perceptual level of human cognition. As thinking adults who are accustomed all too often to taking for granted the more primitive processes by which we came to the knowledge we have (whether that knowledge is legitimate or not), we often ignore the fact that the knowledge enterprise begins, both chronologically and logically, at the perceptual level. A worthy epistemology, one which sufficiently identifies the process by which man acquires and validates his knowledge, needs to take this fact into account. We do not begin with propositions, either chronologically or logically. We begin by perceiving, and only then is there content for us to identify, and the process of identifying that content is by forming concepts which integrate what we perceive into economized units which subsequently can be used in assembling propositions. But before we can assemble those propositions, we need concepts to inform them, and in order to have concepts, we need to form them from what we perceive. So a proposition cannot be fundamental, either logically or chronologically.

Tennant writes:
This doesn’t seem different, in principle, to the oft-repeated objection leveled by empiricists: they will say that, since we Christians must first be able to read the Bible before we can formulate the proposition that it is the word of God, we are actually presupposing empiricism to be able to affirm revelational foundationalism.
It would be absurd to deny the fact that one has a lot of learning about the world to accomplish before he would be in a position to read and evaluate a vast tome like the bible. Clearly he would need to have the ability to correlate linguistic symbols to concepts, and this is not a fundamental or baseline ability. As adults we take this ability for granted because we do it everyday and have automatized the process. But this does not mean we can simply ignore the epistemological importance of that process.

Tennant:
Well, even if this were true, it remains that empiricism does not constitute a viable worldview.
Does Tennant realize that he’s critiquing the work of an Objectivist, not an empiricist?

Tennant:
Maybe it is true in itself
I take it that the “it” here refers to empiricism, which he says “does not constitute a viable worldview.”

Tennant:
(I don’t think it is since I deny that knowledge comes directly through the senses;
What exactly Tennant is denying here? Is he denying the thesis that we perceive knowledge directly? If this is what he means by “empiricism,” I would agree: we perceive objects, things that exist in the universe, e.g., trees, cars, fences, flag posts, mountains, people, ironing boards, books, telephone poles, etc. I would expect Tennant to agree here. In fact, to suppose that we perceive knowledge would commit the fallacy of the stolen concept.

Is he denying that perception plays any role in acquiring and validating knowledge? Again it’s not clear here. But I would expect that Tennant needs to perceive the print on the pages of his bible in order to read it and thus have knowledge of what it teaches. It’s not clear what he thinks his mind does after perceiving the symbols on a printed page though.

Tennant:
I draw a careful distinction between physical and non-physical events in terms of causation);
Here’s another position which Tennant affirms but does not explain, either what it is saying or its relevance to the topic at hand. Like many other theists I’ve encountered, he seems very concerned about being able to distinguish between “physical and non-physical events.” (I wonder if he has a similar concern for being able to distinguish between the real and the imaginary.) He says that he draws “a careful distinction between physical and non-physical events in terms of causation.” I wonder which view of causation he ascribes to. Since he wants to be careful to draw distinctions “between physical and non-physical events,” I suspect he may ascribe to the event-based theory of causation. Incidentally, it is this view of causation which helped lead David Hume to his skepticism about inductive thinking.

Tennant:
but it doesn’t provide us grounds for believing that it is true in itself, nor for believing pretty much anything. So, at best it is merely part of a larger body of truth, and must be incorporated into that body of truth by way of some overarching, governing principle (like the proposition “the Bible is the word of God”).
I’m guessing that Tennant is still talking about empiricism here. He seems to think it’s fine as a component within a larger worldview, but that the worldview itself needs “some overarching, governing principle,” perhaps to unify it within a cohesive system. He suggests that principle should be “the Bible is the word of God.” But why this statement, and not “The Wizard of Oz is the Blurb of Klaigh” or “Prahpubenjao is the Kwamlao of Geusha”? It seems that at this point, since one arbitrary statement can serve Tennant’s purposes, any other arbitrary statement can just as well. For that matter, why not begin with the proposition “Man breathes sulfuric acid”? On Tennant’s standard of what constitutes a viable starting point, what could possibly be wrong with any of the alternatives I mention here?

Of course, if a requirement of a founding principle be that it is “overarching” or all-encompassing, then the axiom of existence fits the bill perfectly. Since the concept ‘existence’ is the widest of all concepts, it includes everything which exists. You can’t get more all-encompassing than this. And because it includes everything which exists, no other concept could be more overarching than the concept ‘existence’. Moreover, unlike the bible or any other storybook, we never experience the absence of what the Objectivist axioms denote. Whether we’re in an automobile, an elevator, on the deck of a cruise ship, in our office cubicle, in a grocery store check-out line, or on a desert island, existence is everywhere. But bibles surely are not. As Porter rightly points out, “anybody can deny the validity of ‘God’, but nobody can deny the validity of ‘existence’.” (Ayn Rand’s Theory of Knowledge, p. 176)

Think about it: How could “God” be broader than the concept ‘existence’? Even if one wants to allow for the existence of a god, he would certainly also need to allow that much more than just that god exists. Think of all the “billions and billions” (to quote Sagan) of things which exist right here in our universe. They exist, just as the theist supposes his god exists. So clearly the concept ‘existence’ is broader – incalculably broader – than said god. So on this basic and undeniable point, the axiom of existence is vastly more overarching than any god could hope to be, which could only mean that the Objectivist axioms provide for a more overarching foundation than theistic foundationalism could ever aspire to providing.

The theistic foundationalist is most likely going to find this alternative unsatisfactory, perhaps even unsettling. He may contend in response to this that his god existed first, that everything else which exists was created by it. After all, this is what his worldview teaches. Of course, this would require us to imagine something “prior to” the existence of the universe – what alternative to imagination do we have here? – even though imagination is not a means of confirming the existence of anything which exists independent of the human mind. It would also lead to the problem of divine lonesomeness, indicating an even more faulty starting point than the criticisms I’ve raised in this paper, thus multiplying theistic foundationalism’s liability against itself. And ironically, such a move would implicate the theist as the one vying for chronological priority, for at this point his intention is not to identify an objective starting point for knowledge (if for anything else, he shows that he needs to retreat into the imaginary at this point), but to defend a storybook view of the universe, something altogether different.

Perhaps what Tennant objects to is a conceptual starting point. Unfortunately, it seems he’s already ruled out the senses with his pronouncements about empiricism. So what is left? To be meaningful, the proposition “the Bible is the Word of God” would need to be comprised of concepts, so he seems rather stuck here.

Tennant:
The same is true of the proposition “existence exists”. That’s a pretty bally meaningless first principle.
I’m reminded of Porter when he observes:
Philosophers denigrate tautologies. “Existence exists” tells them nothing they don’t already know.... And especially nothing they enjoy being reminded of... “Consciousness is conscious” is especially insensitive, threatening to expose the dirty little secret of almost every philosopher since Aristotle... They can only hope it’s meaningless. (Ayn Rand’s Theory of Knowledge, p. 229)
They may say that the axioms don’t tell them anything “new.” But the task of a starting point is not to identify new knowledge, but to secure the old knowledge we already have. Stating one’s most fundamental assumptions explicitly “puts them in jeopardy of being found false. That’s why the resistance. But you’re guiding your life by them; if they’re not true, you need to know it. Now.” (Ibid., p. 238)

How do the Objectivist axioms satisfy this?
Awareness of axiomatic facts is what’s needed. That’s implicit in all knowledge. But awareness that’s only implicit is easily bypassed by a slick salesman or a philosopher’s argument. Axiomatic concepts recognize axiomatic facts explicitly. They’re guardians of thought because they’re active reminders of the absolutism of reality. (Ibid., p. 236)
It does not surprise me, then, when theists resist the Objectivist axioms, because an absolute reality is precisely what stands in the way of their mystical imaginations.

So Tennant declares that “existence exists” is meaningless. But why? Is he saying that the concept ‘existence’ is meaningless? Or, is he saying that statements which affirm that something exists are meaningless? Meaning is a property of concepts, and the concept ‘existence’ does in fact have a meaning. Theists assume it has meaning all the time when they claim their god exists. So I don’t think it will do to object to the axiom of existence by calling it “meaningless,” for it is clearly meaningful, and even Tennant should agree with this since later in his paper he lists it as a statement which is “obviously true.” I wouldn’t expect that Tennant would consider a statement “obviously true” and at the same time “meaningless.” But maybe I’m wrong on this?

Perhaps what Tennant doesn’t like is the proposal of ‘existence exists’ as a first principle. He gives no argument for rejecting the axiom of existence as a first principle. Instead he simply asks:
What useful propositions can be deduced from it without relying on unjustified subjective beliefs or perceptions?
Apparently Tennant is concerned most with “useful propositions,” and/or how such propositions “can be deduced from” one’s founding principle. My first questions in response to this would be, how is the proposition “the Bible is the Word of God” at all useful? To whom would such a proposition be “useful”? In what way would such a proposition be “useful” to anyone? Naturally, on Tennant’s criteria, one would expect the founding proposition from which subsequent propositions were derived be at least as useful as the ones derived from it. So Tennant’s qualification of “usefulness” needs to be explained, and the criteria by which such qualification can be measured need to be identified.

Even more fundamental than these questions would be my point that Tennant’s question itself misconstrues the role of an axiom within a philosophical system as Objectivism understands it. Tennant’s question betrays a common misunderstanding about philosophical axioms, a misunderstanding rooted in rationalism. Objectivism rightly characterizes rationalism as ‘deduction without reference to reality’ (A. Thorn, Observations). Rationalism is the other horn to the rationalist-empiricist dichotomy:
[Philosophers came to be divided] into two camps: those who claimed that man obtains his knowledge of the world by deducing it exclusively from concepts, which come from inside his head and are not derived from the perception of physical facts (the Rationalists)—and those who claimed that man obtains his knowledge from experience, which was held to mean: by direct perception of immediate facts, with no recourse to concepts (the Empiricists). (Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 30)
Where rationalism would expect a philosophical system to be derived exclusively by deduction from an axiom or set of axiom, Objectivism repudiates this expectation by recognizing that an objective, conceptually irreducible starting point has a different task.
Traditional axioms stated initial assumptions about relations among their terms. A one-term axiom... provides no such assumptions. Except one: the implied validity of that term, the existence of its denotation. Imagine Euclidean geometry starting out, “Points exist, lines exist, planes exist....” They’re true, but nobody today thinks axioms identify truths. Or that any truths could be fundamental or self-evident; these are. But what could we deduce from them? Nothing. Ayn Rand’s theory is axiomatic but it’s not deduced from its axioms. They have another job. They distinguish knowledge from its objects, awareness from existence. (Porter, Ayn Rand’s Theory of Knowledge, p. 203)
Similarly Ron Merrill observes:
...unlike mathematical postulates, philosophical axioms should not be expected to be "fertile," that is, capable of generating a body of knowledge by deduction... It is clear that Objectivism does not aim at developing philosophy as a system of deductive implications from its axioms, in the manner of the rationalists. For Rand, the purpose of axioms is to ground the knowledge gained by the senses, not to replace it. (Axioms: The Eight-fold Way)
Not even Objectivists claim that their worldview is deduced from the axioms. The axioms are not a substitute for further discovery of the world. That’s because Objectivism is a reality-based worldview: we get our understanding of the world and how our minds function from inputs we gather from reality, for reality (as opposed to internal musings over emotions such as fear, or some ancient storybook) is the ultimate source of knowledge. As I pointed out to one Christian critic of the axioms:
Objectivism nowhere proposes that the mind stops with any one of these recognitions, or that the axioms serve as a substitute for further knowledge that we may acquire about the world. On the contrary, they provide an anchor for knowledge, a foundation upon which to build our knowledge, not an escape from knowledge... Together the axioms of existence, identity and consciousness set the stage that subsequent knowledge requires by identifying the constants which apply throughout all knowledge and providing the mind with an explicit recognition of the fact that there is a fundamental distinction between what is perceived and the action of perceiving it, between what is known and the process by which it is known, between the object of cognition and the subject of cognition. (The Axioms and the Primacy of Existence)
So Tennant’s question tendentiously misconstrues the role of an axiom within a philosophical system. The purpose of an axiom is to ground man’s cognition by identifying the fundamental connection between reality and his knowledge, and recognizing the inalterable distinction between the two at the same time. Its purpose is not to serve as a wellspring for deductions. Indeed, our knowledge begins with the axiom of existence, it does not stop with it. To learn more about reality, we have to study it, to examine its particulars, to discover its processes. There is no substitute for this.

Tennant:
Of course, a Christian certainly believes that existence exists.
Of course he does; he needs to. But he takes it completely for granted, and never stops to recognize the relationship between existence and consciousness explicitly. Identifying the terms of this relationship explicitly is death to Christianity. So to play it safe, it is left implicit, ignored, out of sight and out of mind. Unfortunately for the Christian, ignoring a fact will not make it go away. It is because his worldview is at odds with the axioms, particularly in the case of the primacy of existence, that it falters from the very get-go; it does because of this system-wide carelessness which cannot outrun facts which are implicit in all knowledge. On that note, I would think that anyone would recognize the truth of the axiom of existence, since it is so obviously true. But believe it or not I have encountered some individuals who have openly denied it. They have always been Christians.

Tennant:
He incorporates this into his worldview by way of his governing principle.
Actually, in the case of the Christian, he smuggles it, and does a poor job of it, for he never acquires an explicit recognition of the proper relationship between subject and object, between knowledge and the objects it denotes, ever risking the hazard of confusing the two. Confusing the roles of subject and object is essential to the Christian worldview; there’s no Christianity without this confusion. So Christians don’t dare come to terms with axiomatic facts explicitly. The excuse they give is that this is “uninteresting,” that it does not tell them anything “new,” that they’re so obviously true that no one in their right mind would waste their time with them. These are the kinds of excuses they give when they’re called on it. But the real reason they prefer to leave them implicit is because they’re dynamite, and they don’t know how to handle dynamite properly. This is why detection of stolen concepts can be so lethal to worldviews like Christianity. As Porter points out:
The Stolen Concept is the arch-transcendental argument, a universal refutation of any philosophy which denies that we can know reality as it is. That’s a terrible weapon in the hands of just one school of philosophy. (Ayn Rand’s Theory of Knowledge, p. 176)
Tennant:
In fact, from this first principle, he is able to discover a far more sublime and useful variant on that proposition, as revealed in Exodus 3:14: “I AM WHO I AM”.
Really? How does he discover this without reading it in the bible? Or, is he, like the rationalists, looking to deduce his entire worldview from his starting point, rather than looking to reality to provide inputs which guide the development of his knowledge? And why suppose that Exodus is talking about something real instead of imaginary, especially when imagination is the only means open to us for conceiving of what it’s talking about?

Tennant:
That is necessarily presupposed in the proposition “the Bible is the word of God”.
See, I was right: the statement “the Bible is the word of God” makes numerous prior assumptions. Therefore, it is not fundamental. It is not a starting point. The Christian who affirms the statement “the Bible is the word of God” as his starting point, is simply hiding something. Indeed, he’s hiding a lot!

Tennant:
But it is not in itself useful for building a framework of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics.
What isn’t “useful,” the axiom of existence? Sure it’s useful. And indispensably so. Try denying its truth, and see how intelligible statements about reality can be without it. What use would statements about reality be if reality did not exist? Blank out. The axiom of existence is the very cornerstone of the hierarchy of man’s knowledge. Its truth is perceptually self-evident, it is conceptually irreducible, it is all-encompassing, all-integrating, implicit in all knowledge, and serves as the only objective foundation in cognition in terms of recognizing the proper orientation of the subject-object relationship. Without this, one risks the inability to reliably distinguish between reality and imagination. But that’s why Christians prefer to go without it.

Tennant:
That is why we take the whole Bible as our starting point; not merely some proposition therein.
If a proposition like “the Bible is the Word of God” assumes prior knowledge, including more fundamental concepts, how much more would “the whole Bible” do the same? And why the bible, and not some other source, such as the Upanishads, The Iliad, or the Gintu Kwamlao? If one were to prefer one of these sources over the others as one’s ultimate starting point, how could it not be the result of utterly arbitrary choosing? A rationally guided choice at this point would not be possible, since we’re talking about starting point; rational guidance is possible only after one has acquired a fair degree of knowledge, and we’re talking about a step which logically precedes this. Regardless, the bible, either whole or in part, cannot be a philosophical starting point for the very reasons I have already cited. It is not conceptually irreducible, its truth is not perceptually self-evident, it is not all-encompassing, its content isn’t even all true – vast portions of it are merely legends, tales and sometimes even lies. Moreover, much of it can only be meaningful in the confines of the believer’s imagination, since much of what he reads in the bible are stories which allegedly took place in the ancient past. We don’t perceive Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses or Jesus, but we can imagine them as we read the stories about them found in the bible. In fact, it is because of this that the bible owes is persisting success as sacred literature to its ability to enthrall the believer at the level of his imagination, which is certainly not axiomatic, and strike him with paralyzing fear. As Prov. 1:7 makes very clear, the believer’s fear of his god is the “starting point” of his knowledge. This clearly puts emotion as the believer’s starting point, which can only indicate that his worldview’s starting point is subjective in nature. Without an objective starting point, irrational fears tend to be taken seriously. This is precisely what Van Til’s autobiographical sketch of his own conversion experience illustrates. See for example my blog Faith as Hope in the Imaginary.

Christians want to take the “the whole Bible” as their starting point, not because it is truly fundamental to knowledge, but because they know that its contents cannot be validated without giving it such an advantageous head start. If one begins with a genuine objective starting point, such as the Objectivist axioms, he would know early on in the development of his knowledge of reality that primitive (i.e., pre-rational, pre-scientific) literature like the stories found in the bible have no value as philosophical principles.

Tennant:
We need far more than an existential affirmation to build a worldview.
This is true, and Objectivism nowhere suggests that we can simply rest our heels once we’ve recognized the facts which the axioms identify. Indeed, we need a constant supply of objective inputs as well as a process for properly identifying those inputs and integrating them into our summary knowledge of reality. But that’s why an axiomatic system should never attempt to deduce all its knowledge from a foundational statement. Just as we would never learn the atomic weight of copper from the axiom ‘existence exists’, we would never learn about photosynthesis by reading the Psalms or the gospel of Luke. We need to be in constant touch with existence to learn about it. Reality is full of specifics; no one will acquire knowledge of those specifics simply by acknowledging that reality is primary, and Objectivism never contends that we will. But explicitly acknowledging that reality is primary in relation to consciousness of it is non-negotiable when it comes to grounding our cognition, for distinguishing between the objects of knowledge and the processes by which that knowledge is acquired and validated. The statement “the Bible is the Word of God” does not accomplish this.

Tennant:
We need a great deal of information about existence: including its origin, its essential nature, and our relationship to it.
Yes, we do need a great deal of information about existence, at least for our own specific purposes, which determine our needs for knowledge of existence. So what is the source of that information, if not existence itself? That’s the Objectivist’s starting point: Existence! Again, we are not going to learn about photosynthesis by consulting the bible. On the contrary, we are constantly referring back to existence, in fact never losing touch with it, since it is our starting point. Recognition that existence holds metaphysical primacy over consciousness means that the knowledge of reality will always be able to be validated by reference to reality. This of course requires an unshakable commitment to reality, which in turn requires an unshakable commitment to the recognition that there is a fundamental distinction between the objects we know and our knowledge of those objects. “We all distinguish implicitly between independent existence and our means of awareness” (Porter, p. 216). This is the fundamental causal fact behind any attempt to provide the mind with a guide to cognition. But because this distinction typically remains implicit, it is typically never very well understood. That is why we need the axioms: to isolate this distinction explicitly so that its implications for cognition, knowledge and philosophy can be consciously (even self-consciously) understood. If you saw a man repeatedly smacking his body against a brick wall, and cursing at the wall between self-propelled impacts against it, demanding it to move out of his way, and continuing such a sequence of actions without avail, would you suppose that he simply needs to read some chapter in Jeremiah or the Book of Revelation in order ot remedy his futile efforts? Probably not. On the contrary, he needs to grasp the primacy of existence principle. Most people do so implicitly, at least in the context of their actions in the world (be it tying his shoes, balancing his checkbook, filling his car with gasoline, walking across a street, etc.), that’s why we don’t see them making such obvious blunders. But we see comparable blunders in philosophy all the time because the primacy of existence has not been understood explicitly. Indeed, if one seeks to guide his worldview seriously by consulting the contents of a storybook like the bible, he may very well expect the walls to obey his commandments. “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13).

Tennant raises the notion of an “origin” of existence. Let’s think about this for a moment. Apparently he thinks existence has an origin, presumably in something other than existence (otherwise it would be pretty unproductive to say that existence finds its origin in existence). That would be quite an admission, for as a Christian he most likely would want to say that existence has its origin in the Christian god. But that would mean that the Christian god, as the origin of existence, would have to be something other than existence, otherwise we’re just point to existence all over again, for which we’re trying to find an origin. Such a procedure is as unproductive as a dog chasing its own tail. Indeed, it strikes me as a tacit acknowledgement that his god really doesn’t exist.

As for our relationship to existence, this is described by the principle of the primacy of existence, which is the explicit recognition of the fact that objects of consciousness exist and are what they are independent of the processes by which we are aware of them.

Tennant:
And that is information which can only truthfully and certainly be gleaned from the revelation of God.
I wonder where we can learn about photosynthesis in the bible.

Tennant:
It sounds like Dawson wants to require of you that you take only self-evident or properly basic propositions as foundational.
Well, for whatever basic affirmation we identify as our foundational principle, we need to address certain basic questions, such as: What is it identifying? How do we have awareness of what it is identifying? Is it true? Does it stand on prior assumptions? Is it all-encompassing? Etc.

If it is acknowledged that a proposed starting point in fact rests on the truth of prior assumptions, then it needs to be acknowledged that what has been proposed as a starting point is in fact not fundamental, and its defenders need to keep digging, reducing their claims to their most basic fundamentals, until the bedrock of cognition has finally been reached. If he rises to this challenge and sticks with it honestly, he’ll find us, the Objectivists, waiting for him at the end. We’ve already been there.

Tennant:
I suspect that traditional foundationalism might require this, though I haven’t a clue why (I haven’t read widely on it I’m afraid).
It seems pretty easy to figure out to me. If a proposed starting point or foundational truth is not self-evident, i.e., readily available to the mind at the fundamental level of cognition, then something else would be, and that something else would have the advantage of epistemological priority over the one proposed. If it is not self-evident, then it needs to be argued for. Therefore, you need premises. Those premises, if in fact they support the proposed starting point that is not self-evidently true, would be more fundamental than the proposed starting point itself. An inferred position rests on prior inference, and that inference needs content. What is that content, and where did you get it? How do you know whether or not it’s true? An attempt to start with something like “the Bible is the Word of God” only indicates an attempt to evade these more fundamental questions.

Tennant:
I can’t see any non-arbitrary reason for this stipulation;
Tennant’s failure to see is not an argument, and his characterization of our need for a conceptually irreducible starting point as a “stipulation” is unwarranted.

Tennant:
and it’s also obviously self-refuting since no such proposition (or combination thereof) can be used to deduce enough of a worldview to justify the stipulation itself. Remember that first principles must contain enough information to deduce themselves and their context, as well as the rest of the worldview.
Says who? Again, a philosophical axiom is not a deductive starting point, but a philosophical starting point. Deduction comes later, and as I explained above, it will require a ready source of inputs. We get our inputs from what we identified as our starting point (i.e., from existence), not from our identification of that starting point. Fact-gathering never seizes when one seeks to learn about existence, and there’s a fundamental distinction between the real and the imaginary. A worldview which fails to grasp the primacy of existence explicitly can easily and probably will fall prey to a blurring of this distinction, which would in turn only compromise any effort one makes in remaining objective.

Tennant:
The whole point of them is to bootstrap our grounds for knowledge. So not only is there no good reason to require first principles to be self-evident or properly basic, but there is very good reason to require that they not be.
If “the whole point of [first principles] is to bootstrap our grounds for knowledge,” why not start where our awareness starts, with perception of objects existing independent of our awareness? That’s where we have to start. To make good on his protestations against this view, the objective view (objective because it recognizes the primacy of objects over the subject of awareness), Tennant would have to explain how we can have direct awareness of that which is not self-evident, for otherwise he offers no alternative to inferring his way to them, and as I pointed out above, inference requires content, and that content would have to be more fundamental than any product of inference.

Tennant:
An even better reason can also be given: we can trivially show that the only sure justification for knowledge in toto must be based on the revelation of a personal God, because without this we are forced to ground universals in our particular experience. This is formally fallacious, and thus useless for justifying anything. We can therefore exclude any other kind of proposition as a useful foundation for an entire worldview—so on what basis is he making the sorts of claims you quote him making? (Cf The Wisdom of God, 2.4 & 2.5.)
Why does Tennant think that “ground[ing] universals in our particular experience” is formally fallacious? He does not explain in his blog entry; perhaps he explains this in the source which he cites. At any rate, I have seen this kind of argument many times before. It often seeks to argue that an omniscient mind is needed for universal knowledge to be possible. And since man is not omniscient, any universal knowledge man claims to have must be knowledge that has been “revealed” to him by a supernatural source. Here is an argument which Tennant himself presents:
Our experience of reality is particular, whereas objective knowledge must—by definition—be universal. Since we are not universal, we can never make any claim to universal or objective knowledge about reality by appealing to our own experiences or perceptions. To do so would be to commit the fallacy of induction: by reasoning from the specific to the general, without due warrant. In other words, if we are to know a universal and objective truth, we must derive it from a universal and objective source. If we go by what we perceive, then we are by definition appealing to a particular and subjective source instead; and so to assume that, because it is true in one instance, it is therefore true in all, is quite unjustified. (The Wisdom of God, p. 36)
It is true that our experience is particular, and that our knowledge – at least some of it – has a universal nature about it. But is it true that universal knowledge cannot be derived from the inputs of our particular experience? Many philosophers throughout history have agreed with some variant of the kind of thinking on this issue which Tennant models here. Indeed, how could an individual acquire knowledge of all men based upon the tiny sample of men whom he has actually met and observed firsthand? The theistic solution to this problem may seem, at least to those who grant the notion of ”the supernatural” some initial validity, an elegant way of tidying the matter up.

The problem with this approach, however, is that it fails to grasp the facts that knowledge is conceptual, and that universality is a quality belonging to concepts, not of the knower himself. This much we can be certain of: human beings do possess universal knowledge, and the form in which they possess their knowledge is conceptual in nature. But the nature of concepts is what is ignored by the kind of approach Tennant presents. For those who are taken in by argument’s such as Tennant’s, universality is mysterious, enigmatic, unknowable to the unaided human mind (since on this view, man’s mind is ultimately incompetent, hence the need for a supernatural helping hand). But in fact, universality is no mystery at all. It is, in fact, nothing more than the open-endedness of a concept’s scope of reference, and this is a result of the abstraction process, specifically the process of measurement-omission, which the human mind performs on the basis of perceptual inputs. It is through this process that a man can isolate two objects which he perceives or has perceived, integrate them into a mental unit, and assign a visual-auditory symbol to represent that mental unit, e.g., ‘ball’.

In fact, it is because man is not omniscient that concepts are so useful to him, since concepts condense an enormous sum of information, a sum which always has the potential to increase as a result of new discoveries about objects which his concepts subsume, thus making it possible for him to treat an unlimited quantity of units as a single unit. An omniscient being wouldn’t need such a tool; indeed, it would only get in its way. This is one of the major points I defended in my article Would an Omniscient Mind Have Knowledge in Conceptual Form? In that article I explain my negative answer to this question.

But theists, lost in their efforts to establish an objective basis to their knowledge claims not only because they lack an objective theory of concepts, but also because their claims have a subjective basis, are still eager to appeal to revelation and seek to explain human knowledge as a result of revelation. It’s baffling how one could seriously take such an approach to knowledge, but it’s quite common in some circles even today. But how does it purportedly work? Take fore example the fact that copper melts at 1984 F. Every mint which produces copper coins and every factory which produces copper tubing, needs to integrate this fact into its processes in order to work with it. Indeed, this is adherence to the primacy of existence: obedience to the nature of the objects of knowledge. Now the question before us in the present discussion is: Is this fact something that was revealed to us from a supernatural source? The bible surely does not tell us that copper melts at 1984 F, does it? If so, I’d like to see where. If it’s not in the bible, does revelation disguise itself to look at feel like an active knowledge-gathering process which men perform by their own effort, such as observation, experimentation and scientific validation? If so, how do we know that it’s revelation giving us knowledge and not us producing knowledge for ourselves according to an objective process, since we’re doing all the work, sometimes encountering error, sometimes never reaching reliable conclusions? Revelation is supposed to be infallible (is it not?), while human actions are admittedly fallible (that’s why we need an objective process in the first place). The appeal to revelation is extremely dubious, and since man is capable of rational inquiry and applying the scientific method, why would revelation even be needed? Blank out.

Tennant concluded with the following remarks:
To summarize, I think Dawson is confusing the chronological priority of propositions (what must be true to even formulate the biblical worldview?) with logical priority (how do we logically justify these chronologically prior propositions?) The whole point of revelational foundationalism is that there are a lot of things which are obviously true (”existence exists”; “an external world exists”; “events we perceive are correlated to events in the external world”; etc), but which we cannot rationally justify or give account for without reference to God’s objective revelation. Revelational foundationalism works backward by first assuming these truths, so as to find justification for them; then justifying them with reference to Scripture.
Much of this has already been addressed by the points I raised above. But for my readers’ benefit I will simply restate my original response to this when David Parker had quoted just this portion from Tennant’s article in the comments section of my blog Another Response to David, Part 7: The Anatomy of Legend and the Ruse of Revelation:
First he seeks to dichotomize the role of a starting point by splitting it into two types: chronological and logical. He does this in order to show that I have confused these types, when in fact he nowhere shows that I have (he simply asserts that I have and provides no support for this). In fact, the axiom ‘existence exists’ satisfies both, because this recognition comes first both in our apprehension of reality (i.e., chronologically) as well as in the hierarchy of knowledge which we develop in our understanding of reality (i.e., logically). Since the axiom of existence satisfies a genuine *conceptual* need which we all have, there is no confusion here. Not on my part anyway. A philosophical starting point needs to identify the most fundamental of all truths, and this need requires it to be conceptually irreducible. As I pointed out in an earlier comment, the concept ‘existence’ is not defined in terms of prior concepts. If one supposes that it could be defined in terms of prior concepts, to what would those concepts refer, if not to things which exist? If they refer to things which exist, then clearly they assume the truth of the axiom of existence already, even if only implicitly, and make use of the concept they’re trying to define. That would lead to an infinite regress, which the axiom of existence avoids. If those concepts purported to define the concept ‘existence’ do not refer to things which exist, what good are they, and why would we have them in the first place? Blank out. A starting point also needs to identify a fact which is perceptually self-evident, for this is where our awareness of reality begins, with perception. It would not do to affirm a starting point which seeks to jump ahead of where our awareness begins, because this would treat a later recognition (or imagination) as being more fundamental than what we are first aware of. So both types of priority which your friend introduces are thus satisfied in one basic recognition, a recognition which would have to be true for anything else to be accepted as true.

The notion of ‘revelation’ is certainly not conceptually irreducible. The test for this is to ask whether or not it can be defined, and if so, how is it defined? One of my bible dictionaries does give this term a definition: “a term expressive of the fact that God has made known to men truths and realities that men could not discover for themselves.” Notice all the assumptions packed into this one idea. It is clearly not fundamental, for it stands on a whole host of prior assumptions. It fails the conceptual irreducibility test. Also, given this definition (and I’ve seen others which essentially say the same thing), it clearly cannot pass the perceptually self-evident test, for it stipulates by definition that whatever “truths and realities” are known through revelation are “truths and realities that men could not discover for themselves,” while perception gives man direct awareness of objects which exist.

Notice also that your friend realizes that “revelational foundationalism works backward.” It has no choice but to do this, because it begins with a large assortment of assumptions, bundles them into an enormous package-deal, and accepts that package-deal as a non-negotiable, and then “works backward” from there in order “to find justification for them.” The purpose of identifying one’s starting point is to cut past assumptions which we take for granted so that we can understand what is truly fundamental and determine whether or not those assumptions are in fact rationally grounded. A “revelational foundationalism” has its priorities completely reversed, since it does not want to concede any assumptions, but rather wants to hang onto them and find ways of justifying them. This is why it is so fruitful, from an atheological standpoint, to ask a theist to name is starting point. Whatever he offers is most likely going to fail the fundamentality tests. See also these essays: TAG and the Fallacy of the Stolen Concept and Is the Assumption of the Chrisitan God Axiomatic? Also, the notion of ‘revelation’ defies the very concept of objectivity, since the appeal to revelation is used in cases where purported “knowledge” has no actual tie to reality. The above definition for ‘revelation’ given in my bible dictionary confirms this. It is the attempt to accept as knowledge ideational content which has not been epistemologically earned, and is thus another expression of the theist’s desire for the unearned. It is because theistic assertions are in fact objectively baseless, that theists need to resort to appeals to revelation in order to safeguard them. Of course, any set of arbitrary claims could be “justified” by appealing to an invisible magic being which allegedly “revealed” them to a privileged clique of mystics.
In closing, let me say a few final points. Many theistic apologists are naturally going to want to affirm the existence of the god they worship in their starting point. They do this because they realize at some level of thought that their efforts to prove its existence are doomed to futility. So they claim that their god is “presupposed.” And even though they need to make use of the truth of the Objectivist axioms in any foundational statement they affirm, they prefer to leave these truths implicit, dismissing the practice of making them explicit as preposterous, uninteresting, or even degrading in some way. But clearly, as I have shown, there is no contest between so-called “theistic foundationalism” and the Objectivist axioms. Theistic foundationalism is not and cannot be fundamental: for one thing, the notion of a god is deniable (while the fact of existence is not), it is not perceptually self-evident (while existence is), and is not an irreducible primary (while existence is). Also, as its own proponents typically admit themselves, what theistic foundationalism takes as its “first principle” rests on a plethora of prior assumptions, which can only mean it is not a baseline recognition or irreducible affirmation. Indeed, those prior assumptions all come as part of an enormous package, expected to be taken completely for granted, leaving them implicit, unexamined and unsupported. This can only raise the suspicion that a whole host of unstated presuppositions are being smuggled into one’s worldview at the ground level. If those presuppositions were legitimately defensible, such a move would not be needed. And lastly, if we are expected to suppose that theistic foundationalism is valid, why should we also not suppose that Thoran foundationalism, Geushan foundationalism, Quetzlcoatlan foundationalism, Horus foundationalism, etc., are also valid? If we accept one arbitrary position, why can’t we accept an alternative, equally arbitrary position? Theistic foundationalism can offer no good reason why we shouldn’t if we haven’t already accepted it.

by Dawson Bethrick