Friday, May 22, 2009

The “Necessary Being” vs. “Contingent Being” Argument

This is an analysis of an argument which Justin Hall encountered in the field and brought to my attention in the comments section of my blog Non-Cognitivism or Metaphysical Primacy: What’s the Better Strategy?

The argument which Justin posted is not unlike many that I’ve seen before. It clearly seeks to trade on a distinction between “necessary existence” and “contingent existence,” a dichotomy which I think is unjustifiable. I strongly suspect that it has its roots in Anal Phil, which seems to run away with itself in “modal logic” with passionate abandon. If we begin with the fact that existence exists, what necessitates dividing the concept ‘existence’ into two opposed categories like this?

The argument dwells a lot on which of these categories can “cause” the other. It does not ask whether existence as such is caused, but whether one or the other category (“necessary existence” or “contingent existence”) can be caused, and if so, by which category.

The argument affirms the following premise:

Nonbeing Cannot Cause Being (Non-B>B) The Principle of Causality.

Now this is not what I understand the principle of causality to say. The principle of causality makes a positive affirmation, while the conception of causality given here is purely negative. Of course I agree that “nonbeing cannot cause being” or that something which does not exist cannot cause existence to exist. But this is because I start with the fact that existence exists rather than with nothing and then need to explain the fact that existence exists. My understanding of the principle of causality has to do with the relationship between an entity and its own actions, and according to the principle of causality this is a necessary relationship, since the actions of an entity necessarily depend on the acting entity’s nature. A crow can fly because it has wings and can use them to achieve lift; a crow cannot be poured into a glass and conform to its shape like water or orange juice can. As for existence, I don’t think it is caused; the concept of causality presupposes the concept of existence, and causality as a metaphysical phenomenon is only possible if things exist in the first place. To put causality prior to existence, then, would commit the fallacy of the stolen concept. So perhaps it would be educational to know why the defender of this argument thinks that “nonbeing cannot cause being.” Would it be for similar reasons?

Look at the next premise:

Contingent Being Can't Cause Contingent Being (Bc>Bc) Dependency.

Really? Would a human parent be an example of a “contingent being”? And isn’t a human parent the cause of his child’s existence? And isn’t the child another example of a “contingent being”? I am a parent and I know that both I and my wife played our respective roles in bringing our daughter into the world. The same is the case with me with respect to my parents, and my wife with respect to her parents. Biological organisms have the ability to reproduce. It seems that, if we accept the “necessary existence vs. contingent existence” dichotomy, that I as an offspring of my parents am a “contingent being” and my daughter as an offspring of both my wife and me is yet another “contingent being.”

The next premise only compounds the problem:

Only Necessary Being Can Cause a Contingent Being (Bn->Bc) = The Positive Principle of Modality.

So presumably my daughter is a “contingent being,” since she has not existed eternally and her existence was caused by some factor prior to her existence. So did I as an originally “contingent being” somehow turn into a “necessary being” at some point before fathering my daughter, so that I could be in compliance with this argument’s premises? Perhaps so: in the case of my daughter’s existence, I was very much a necessary factor, just as my wife was. But I do not see any premise in this argument which allows something that was at one time a “contingent being” to become a “necessary being.” There seems to be no permission to switch sides, as it were. So there seems to be a defect here. Or perhaps I was born a “necessary being” from the very get-go, and did not have to undergo any kind of transformation from a “contingent being” to a “necessary being.” It’s not clear to me, because the argument strayed from my understanding of the universe well before we got to this point. So it’s up to the defender of such an argument to untangle this imbroglio.

Then the argument affirms the following premise:

Necessary Being Cannot Cause a Necessary Being (Bn>Bn) = The Negative Principle of Modality.

Why is this? What if the “necessary being” is omnipotent? Or is omnipotence not allowed by these premises? It seems that a “necessary being” which is not able to “cause [another] necessary being” would not be an omnipotent being. But of course, theists like to call their god both a “necessary being” as well as an omnipotent being. Then again, many apologists define omnipotence as the ability to do anything that is “logically possible,” and such individuals would probably say that causing a “necessary being” to exist is “logically impossible.” But why? It seems to me that the concept “necessary” here has no contextual basis or meaning. Above I pointed out that my existence is certainly necessary for my daughter’s existence to be a reality. My daughter does in fact exist, so this is a fact which needs to be dealt with. I exist and so do my parents. Likewise my parents’ existence was necessary for me to exist. On my view, the use of the concept ‘necessary’ in this manner is valid; how would my daughter be able to exist without my existence and participation in her conception? So I think the concept ‘necessary’ has a context to it which is being dropped or ignored in the proposed argument.

This hints at an important reason why I think the proposed distinction between “necessary existence” vs. “contingent existence” is fallacious. The concept existence (by itself, that is) is axiomatic; it is an irreducible primary. What the concept 'existence' identifies does not depend on anything prior to it; there is nothing prior to existence. Existence exists, and there’s no contest here. The test for this is the fact that the concept ‘existence’ is not defined in terms of prior concepts. Its definition is ostensive, not conceptual. That’s one reason why it’s an axiomatic concept: it’s conceptually irreducible. There is no concept which is more fundamental in our hierarchy of knowledge than the concept of existence.

But the concepts ‘necessary’ and ‘contingent’ are not like this. They are not axiomatic. They presuppose the validity of prior concepts. The test for this is the fact that these concepts are defined in terms of prior concepts; that is, in terms of concepts which are more fundamental in our hierarchy of knowledge. These more fundamental concepts inform the concepts ‘necessary’ and ‘contingent’ with the context which makes them meaningful. Since these are not axiomatic concepts (for instance, they do not name or identify something which is directly perceived), they need to be informed by prior concepts in order to have meaning, This is one reason why it’s so ironic, in my view, when Christians affirm arguments of this nature, which try to draw such hefty conclusions from notions like “necessary existence” and “contingent existence”: Christians say their worldview is necessary for “meaning,” and yet here we have concepts employed in an manner which allows them no meaning. If they have meaning, what is it? Well, what are their definitions? If they have definitions in terms of prior concepts, then they are not themselves conceptually irreducible; they depend on more fundamental concepts in that case. And yet the premises of this argument put them on the same level with an axiomatic concept. We have essentially a double package-deal here which couples an axiomatic concept with two higher-level concepts as if they were themselves axiomatic. This simply doesn’t work. It’s really an attempt to pair an axiomatic concept with two stolen concepts, a move which completely invalidates the argument employing such a monstrosity.

The next premise simply confirms the imbroglio which I mentioned above:

Every Contingent Being is Caused by a Necessary Being (Bn->Bc) = The Principle of Existential Causality.

So again, my daughter is a being whose existence was caused by something prior, thus presumably making her a “contingent being.” Both I and my wife are the cause of her existence (I don’t know how anyone could argue against this), which, according to what we’re told by the premises of this argument, means that both my wife and I are each a “necessary being.” But both my wife’s and my existence were caused by our parents, which would mean that we’re “contingent beings,” which defies our necessary role in the “contingent existence” of our daughter. As an Objectivist, I’m sure glad these aren’t my problems!

Then there’s another problematic premise:

The Necessary Being is similar to the similar contingent being it causes = The Principle of Analogy (Bn-similar->Bc)

Really? Again I don’t think this is always the case. Yes, my daughter is similar to my wife and me in various respects, some of them fundamental. For instance, both our daughter as well as my wife and I are biological organisms, we have physical bodies, we possess the capacity to perceive objects and are thus conscious of things in the world; as biological organisms we face a fundamental alternative (life vs. death) and thus can live only if certain conditions are met (e.g., food, water, shelter, protection from the elements, etc.), etc. In other words, we need values in order to exist. But this is not the case for everything that I cause. If I make a mess in the kitchen – say I spill the coffee grounds on the kitchen floor, is what I caused similar to me? Yes, coffee grounds are physical and have a specific nature, just as I have. But the similarities pretty much end there. The coffee grounds are not a biological organism; they do not possess consciousness; they do not face the fundamental alternative that I as a biological organism face; they do not need values in order to exist, etc. I see no reason why the thing caused should be expected to be similar to the thing that caused it.

In the case of the Christian god, the problematic nature of this premise is evident in other respects. The Christian god is supposed to be a “necessary being,” while everything it has created (i.e., “caused” to exist) is “contingent being.” Naturally the arguer has in mind the “contingent being” known as man. Other examples of “contingent being” certainly seem as dissimilar to the Christian god as one could get. Dirt, for example, is supposed to have been “caused” by the Christian god, but how is dirt as a “contingent being” at all similar to the Christian god as a “necessary being”? The Christian god is supposed to be non-physical, supernatural, indestructible, infinite, omnipotent, infallible, not a composite of more fundamental materials, etc. But can we say this about dirt? I don’t think so. Dirt is physical (not “non-physical”), it’s natural (not “supernatural”), destructible (it can be eroded or disintegrated into dust and blown away, or solidified into sandstone, etc.), finite (it is what it is, and only what it is, not something more than what it is), not omnipotent, not infallible, a composite of more fundamental materials (e.g., atoms and molecules, silicates, carbonates, etc.), etc. In every respect, this “contingent being” is quite dissimilar to the “necessary being” which Christianity holds as its cause. Other counterexamples could be cited. For instance, rocks, rivers, planets, quasars, moons, comets, flowers, ice crystals, quartz, clouds, dung, etc. But all of these things are supposed to be examples of “contingent being,” and yet seem to enjoy no relevant similarity with the “necessary being” that is said to be their cause.

In the case of man as “contingent being,” there are still problems to contend with. For instance, man is a biological organism. But the Christian god is certainly no biological organism. Unlike man, it is said to be “incorporeal” – i.e., it has no body. It has no stomach, liver, pancreas, gall bladder, even a heart. It doesn’t even have a brain. Yes, that’s right, Christians worship a brainless being. (And it’s still unclear to me how a brainless being can be “intelligent.”) Also, the Christian god does not face the fundamental alternative which man as a biological organism faces, i.e., life vs. death. The Christian god is supposed to be eternal, immortal, indestructible. Unlike man, then, the Christian god’s continued existence is not dependent upon its actions: it does not need to seek food, water, shelter, or other values. Man’s existence, on the other hand, is dependent on the procurement of values; without the values of food, water, shelter, etc., he will die. But since the Christian god does not face this fundamental alternative, it would have no need for any values to begin with; in fact, it's not supposed to have any needs whatsoever. “Needs” are a symptom of a “contingent being,” a being dependent upon something for its existence. So in what way is the Christian god as “necessary being” similar to man as “contingent being” which it is said to have caused to exist?

Christians may cite man’s capacity for rationality, spirituality and holiness as points of similarity with the Christian god. But even here we encounter problems. Rationality is not only volitional in nature (it is a chosen commitment), it also has a conceptual nature. Rationality is the commitment to reason as one’s only means of knowledge and his only guide to action. Reason is the faculty by which an individual identifies and integrates what he perceives. What is the form in which man identifies and integrates what he perceives? It is in the form of concepts that he does this. It is in the form of concepts that man develops and retains his knowledge. But I have already shown that the Christian god, as an omniscient consciousness, would not possess its knowledge in the form of concepts (see for instance my blog Would an Omniscient Mind Have Knowledge in Conceptual Form?). So already we’re seeing a fundamental dissimilarity here: rationality presupposes conceptual knowledge, and the Christian god, qua omniscient mind, would not possess knowledge in conceptual form. The other two proposed categories likewise follow suit. The Christian god’s capacity for both spirituality and holiness are informed by omniscience and infallibility, while even in the most optimal of conditions man’s capacity for these same would not be so informed. Man is neither omniscient nor infallible, conditions having to do with one’s nature of consciousness which are more fundamental than either spirituality or holiness. So upon closer inspection, the claim to similarity here is simply a mirage.

The application of the argument proposed by its defender offers another category of similarity: emotion. He states:

I am a rational, emotional and spiritual person.

Therefore, the one prior to me must also be rational, emotional and spiritual since we are similar (#12)

Well, what is emotion? Emotion is an automatic reaction to new information as it concerns one’s values. If I get a phone call from a hospital, for instance, and on the calling end is the voice of a nurse telling me that my wife has been admitted to the emergency room, my emotions are needless to say going to be on high alert. My mind would consequently be racing: Was she in an auto accident? Was she the victim of a crime? Is she injured in some way? Is she going to be okay? What the hell is going on? The new information (the call from a nurse at a hospital telling me that my wife has been admitted to the emergency room) measured against my values (I am deeply in love with my wife) would immediately and automatically cause a spike in my emotions. When the nurse tells me that my wife is okay (new information), my emotions are calmed a bit. But why has she been admitted to the ER? The nurse tells me that she twisted her ankle at work and her team lead insisted that she be brought to the ER for X-rays (more information). A twisted ankle? Well, that’s a lot less serious than some of the alternatives I could imagine, which is all I’d have to go on if more information were not forthcoming.

Now what does this entirely realistic scenario tell us about the nature of emotions? It tells us that emotional experience presupposes non-omniscience. Had I been omniscient, I would have already known that my wife was admitted to the ER, and why, and that she was not in any immediate danger. So there’d be no causation for a spike in my emotional experience. But since I am only a man, and have my non-omniscient, fallible mind to work with, I’d have no way of knowing any of this before the nurse called to tell me about it. Furthermore, my emotions in such a case are dependent on my value of my wife. I value my wife because she’s important to me, to my wellbeing, to my existence. Without her, I would have a completely different view of life. But if I were eternal, immortal, indestructible, facing no alternative between life and death, having no needs, etc., the wellbeing of my wife would have no objective significance to my existence or conscious experience. Without the need for values, there'd be nothing to threaten me, so I would be completely indifferent to her wellbeing. Emotions, then, presuppose the very conditions which, on the Christian view, make us “contingent beings”: non-omniscience, fallibility, mortality, destructibility, dependence upon conditions being met, contingence, etc.

These are some of the points I would raise in response to this argument. The upshot is that it is deeply problematic, both from an objective understanding of the world, and also from a Christian viewpoint. But it is most problematic from an objective understanding, an understanding without which it would have no meaning to begin with.

There is of course something entirely and conspicuously missing from the argument, and that is any consideration for the proper relationship between a consciousness and its objects. It is this relationship which is the make-or-break consideration when it comes to the principle of objectivity. The argument clearly wants to assume objectivity (since it seeks to affirm how things are, independent of anyone’s wishing, preferences, ignorance, etc.), but it does not proceed from an informed understanding of what objectivity involves. This is clear from its conclusion, which posits something which is supposed to be a conscious being (the Christian god) as the cause of everything else. By what means did it bring everything else into existence? By means of conscious activity, e.g., an act of will. This is not stated explicitly in the argument, but that’s because it deliberately avoids dealing with the issue of metaphysical primacy. It makes no attempt to consider the proper relationship between consciousness and its objects, but its conclusion could not survive without the assumption that a consciousness could have the ability to “create” its own objects, or by some conscious activity bring them into existence ex nihilo. Why else would the distinction between “necessary existence” and “contingent existence” have any significance for the arguer?

As always, readers' comments are welcome.

by Dawson Bethrick

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Non-Cognitivism or Metaphysical Primacy: What's the Better Strategy?

In the comments section of my blog ”Ultimate Questions”, Madmax asked:

Your method of challenging theistic apologetics is to expose the theist's commitment to metaphysical subjectivism. This is a powerful approach because it shows the theist's contradictions for what they are. But I wonder if Rand's argument that 'God' isn't even a valid concept isn't a more devastating approach… Rand's argument was, in essence, her own version of the argument on non-cognitivism (or the meaningless of religious discourse) based on her theory of concept formation.

This is a good question, though there are some points to consider. But to give a direct answer to this question, my view is that the contention that “God” is not a valid concept is really a side issue, one which is philosophically subordinate to the issue of metaphysical primacy and consequently the charge that theism is at its root committed to metaphysical subjectivism. I hold this position because, regardless of whether or not “God” is a legitimate concept or not, the underlying problem with god-belief is its commitment to metaphysical subjectivism, as I have argued here. In fact, a theist could rightly admit that “God” is not, on his view, supposed to be a concept in the first place. In such a case, pointing out that “God” is not a valid concept would probably have little debating value. But the underlying issue still remains the distinction between the objects of one’s consciousness, and the conscious activity by which one identifies or refers to those objects, or whether or not the activity of consciousness has been confused with or superimposed on the objects of one’s consciousness. To understand this, let’s review the pertinent facts.

In the case of the fact that “God” isn’t a valid concept, here’s what Rand had to say:

Prof. D: … And what common features of particulars are retained in order to get the concept “God” –

AR: I would have to refer you to a brief passage about invalid concepts [page 49]. This is precisely one, if not the essential one, of the epistemological objections to the concept “God.” It is not a concept. At best, one could say it is a concept in the sense in which a dramatist uses concepts to create a character. It is an isolation of actual characteristics of man combined with the projection of impossible, irrational characteristics which do not arise from reawlity – such as omnipotence and omniscience.

Besides, God isn’t even supposed to be a concept: he is sui generis, so that nothing relevant to man or the rest of nature is supposed, by the proponents of that viewpoint, to apply to God. A concept has to involve two or more similar concretes, and there is nothing like God. He is supposed to be unique. Therefore, by their own terms of setting up the problem, they have taken God out of the conceptual realm. An quite properly, because he is out of reality. (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 148)

I’m not sure if this is the passage which Madmax had in mind when he mentions “Rand’s argument that ‘God’ isn’t even a valid concept,” but this is what came to mind when I read his statement. If he had something else specifically in mind, I’d like to know what it is.

So given this, one can rightly point out that “God” is not a valid concept, but the theist – if he’s aware of these distinctions – could easily agree and say that “God” is a proper name rather than a concept integrating two or more similar concretes. This of course does not stop theists from treating “God” as a concept – in fact, many times apologists treat their god as if it were a concept. Consider the following statement:

The basic structure of Christianity – creation, fall, redemptive revelation, redemption, and final judgment – can be directly deduced from the concept of an absolute God… (Mike Warren, Christian Civilization is the Only Civilization – In a Sense, Of Course)

Concepts are mental phenomena; they are psychological. They are the form in which the human mind economizes the vast array of perceptions one experiences in his conscious life. Statements like “the concept of an absolute God” may actually constitute an unwitting admission that one’s object of worship is all in the mind, like the things one imagines.

Of course, theists will resist this interpretation of their statements, and if called on it will likely insist that their god is not just a concept. I’m reminded of the following exchange between George H. Smith and Greg Bahnsen in their radio debate. Smith asks Bahnsen an important question:

Smith: “Is God an abstraction, Greg?”

Bahnsen: “Uh no, God is a personal, non-physical being.”

Smith: “Non-physical? Could you be more specific? I mean, non-existence is non-physical as well. So how do we distinguish God from non-existence?”

Bahnsen: “Well, obviously, you uh distinguish God, a non-physical being, from say the concept of love, or say the concept of number, or the laws of physics or the laws of logic, you distinguish them according to their characteristics. God is a person, makes choices, and does things. Numbers do not.”

Here Bahnsen is explicitly asked to address the question of whether or not “God” is an abstraction. Bahnsen’s response is “Uh no” in this case. But it seems difficult for Christian apologists to avoid treating their god conceptually, i.e., as if it were a concept. For instance, in his book Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, Bahnsen makes the following statement:

It should be particularly noted, therefore, that only a system of philosophy that takes the concept of an absolute God seriously can really be said to be employing a transcendental method… The opponent of Christianity will long ago have noticed that we are frankly prejudiced, and that the whole position is "biblicistic." On the other hand, some fundamentalists may have feared that we have been trying to build up a sort of Christian philosophy without the Bible. Now we may say that if such be the case, the opponent of Christianity has sensed the matter correctly. The position we have briefly sought to outline is frankly taken from the Bible. And this applies especially to the central concept of the whole position, viz., the concept of an absolute God. Nowhere else in human literature, we believe, is the concept of an absolute God presented.,, It thus appears that we must take the Bible, its conception of sin, its conception of Christ, and its conception of God and all that is involved in these concepts together, or take none of them. (p. 517; italics original)

Other examples can be produced, but this one passage should be sufficient to show how casually Bahnsen treats his god as if it were in fact conceptual in nature, in spite of his answer to Smith when explicitly called upon the matter. Of course, I raise this point because on my view, concepts are abstractions, since concepts are formed by a process of abstracting from specific objects (i.e., from objects possessing specific measurements which are omitted – or “despecified” as Porter puts it – in the process of forming concepts). My view is that theists implicitly tend to treat their god as something conceptual because it is ultimately psychological, specifically rooted in the believer’s imagination. This would explain the believer’s willingness to flip back and forth between treating his god as something conceptual on the one hand, and as something concrete and specific on the other.

Either way, though, there is a problem in so far as Objectivism is concerned. And this is not a problem which the theist can simply dismiss as internal to Objectivism, since the problem is rooted in the manner in which the human mind works, and everyone must work with his mind. Whether “God” is supposed to be a concept or a proper name, it is being used as a mental symbol to refer to something that is supposed to be extra-mental, something supposedly existing independent of the mind of the believer. It’s supposed to refer to something which exists objectively, rather than to a figment of the believer’s imagination. So right here the theist is employing the primacy of existence whether he realizes it or not, and in so doing he is in a sense “borrowing” from a non-Christian metaphysical position.

Given these facts, certain questions come up which need to be contended with, whether or not one is an Objectivist. For instance, to what specifically is this mental symbol supposed to refer? The theist will of course say it refers to a supernatural conscious being which has all sorts of various attributes and accomplishments, such as (in the case of attributes) omniscience, infallibility, absolute sovereignty, infiniteness, etc., and (in the case of accomplishments) the creation of the universe, the atonement for sins, etc. So the word “God” (whether concept or proper name) is supposed to refer to or denote this supernatural thing which is said to exist independent of any human being’s consciousness.

The question then becomes: by what means does the theist have awareness of this supernatural being? One issue needs to be clarified at this point: does he claim to be aware of this supernatural being directly? Or, does he just “know of” it by means of inference from other things of which he has direct awareness? It’s not always clear which position a particular theist holds given certain statements he may make, or his treatment of the matter. Some seem to act as if they have direct awareness of their god, as you and I have direct awareness of objects we perceive with our senses. If the theist says he has direct awareness of his god, by what means does he have this direct awareness? Presumably it cannot be by means of sense perception, since the word “God” is supposed to refer to something imperceptible to human beings: it’s invisible, it’s immaterial, we cannot see it, we cannot touch it, we cannot hear it (though various biblical passages, particularly in the Old Testament suggest that some individuals, such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, etc, did have the ability or opportunity to see this god or hear its voice). The point here is that, if we cannot have direct awareness of this supernatural being by means of sense perception (and descriptions of the Christian god preclude this ability), then by what means does the believer have direct awareness of it (if he claims to have such awareness of his god)? This is a question for the believer to answer. Whatever answer he gives, supposing he sticks with the position that he has direct awareness of his god, we should inquire as to how we can distinguish the means which he proposes from his imagination, and how we can reliably distinguish between what he calls “God” and what he may merely be imagining. This is a common course of inquiry in my writings, and so far I’ve not seen any good answers to it from theists. It should be pointed out at this point, in the interest of answering Madmax’s question, that this leads back to the issue of metaphysical subjectivism: is the theist confusing the contents of his consciousness (some of which may have an imaginative basis and therefore subjective in nature) with what actually exists, with reality?

The alternative to having direct awareness of this alleged supernatural being, would be to infer its existence from other things of which one has direct awareness. This leads us to argumentation. When individuals like William Lane Craig present arguments which are intended to conclude that a god exists, they are implicitly acknowledging that we do not have direct awareness of what they call “God,” that we need to infer its existence by some course of reasoning, by implication of certain premises which they put forward and endorse (e.g., the universe is not eternal and needed a cause, or the world exhibits design and therefore there must have been a designer, etc.). An argument of course consists of premises which are supposed to support a conclusion. So at this point it’s fair game to ask the believer what his starting point is. Some seem to think that “God” is their starting point. But this would render any argument intended to conclude that a god exists viciously circular; it would beg the question, since the existence of their god is admittedly assumed from the very beginning. That takes us back to the previous alternative: does the believer claim to have direct awareness of what he calls “God”? If the believer identifies something other than his god as his starting point, what is it, and how does he traverse from what he identifies as his starting point to the conclusion that his god exists? At this point, we can raise the issue of metaphysical primacy, and ask if he is aware that there is a proper relationship between consciousness and its objects, and whether or not everything he is telling us is consistent with the inescapable implication present in any affirmation of a truth that the objects of consciousness exist independent of consciousness. After all, to say “God exists,” is to make a statement about reality which presumably obtains independent of the speaker’s wishes, preferences, imagination, ignorance, etc. So again the issue of metaphysical primacy is in play here. How does the theist address it? Is his assumption of the primacy of existence (such as when he makes a statement about reality which is not supposed to reflect anyone’s wishing or preferences about the state of affairs it references) consistent with his god-belief claims? I don’t think it is.

Madmax asked:

Do you think it is better to show that the god-concept is a meaningless term that literally refers to nothing (as no positive attributes can *ever* be attached to it) first and then get into the argument from the primacy of existence? Or do you think that the fundamental argument against theism is to establish the primacy of existence first?

Again, this is a good question. Keeping the pointers given above in mind, I still think that focusing on the issue of metaphysical primacy is equivalent to “going for the jugular” in examining theistic claims. Whether or not “God” is a concept, a proper name, or paramount to meaningless grunting, the issue at hand ultimately reduces to the relationship between consciousness and its objects, any way you slice it.

But this does not mean that non-cognitivism is off limits by any means. If a theist invokes the word “God,” it’s certainly valid to ask what it is supposed to denote. If the theist objects to this, it may be that he’s trying to hide something. Why else would he have a problem with this? He could take the Reformed route and claim that we already know his god, but this would simply be another claim for him to validate. Now he not only has to validate his claim that a god exists, he now has to validate the claim that everyone knows his god. If the theist has a hard time explaining what the word “God” refers to, this alone would seem to indicate a problem for the claim that everyone knows his god.

My only point is that such discussions are apt to delay getting to the more fundamental issue, which is the issue of metaphysical primacy. It should be borne in mind that the primacy of existence is the root of the concept of objectivity, and any claim about reality attempts to draw on the concept of objectivity as the proper orientation between consciousness and the universe of objects, whether legitimately (as in the case of mundane claims about the world, such as “human beings exist” or “there’s a sale at Penny’s”) or illicitly (such as god-belief claims).

To recap, the basic questions you might pose to theists include the following:

1) To what is the word “God” supposed to refer?

2) Does the theist claim to be directly aware of what he calls “God”? If so, can he identify the means by which he thinks he has direct awareness of what he calls “God”? If not, then question 3) below:

3) Does the theist claim to infer its existence from something else of which he has direct awareness? If so, what is this something else of which he has direct awareness and from which he has inferred the existence of his god?

4) If the theist neither has direct awareness of his god nor claims to have inferred its existence from something else of which he does have direct awareness, then can he identify some alternative to these as the means by which he has knowledge of his god? (E.g., did he just read about it in a storybook?)

5) In regard to whatever answer the theist gives to any of these questions, what do his answers assume to be the proper orientation his consciousness and the objects of his awareness? Does he assume that his claims are true because he wishes that they are true? Or that he believes them to be true? Or does he claim to believe them because he thinks they are true independent of what he wishes and believes? If this latter position is the case, how does he explain this in light of the specifics of his god-belief claims, which portray the universe of objects as conforming to the dictates of a supernatural consciousness?

Of course, if a non-believer raises the criticism of non-cognitivism, the theist might reply by challenging the non-believer to “account for” cognition to begin with? Of course, there’s nothing to fear in such challenges if one is armed with the primacy of existence and a good theory of concepts, both of which Objectivism supplies. But I would see this as an attempt to deflect the discussion away from the criticism rather than to answer it.

Madmax wrote:

I ask because it seems to me that the epistemological argument against the god-concept itself might be a better place to start before getting to the metaphysical arguments that deal with the subject-object relationship.

While I see objection to posing questions to theists about the meaning of the word “God,” I’m not sure it’s the case that the epistemological argument against the notion of a god is a better place to start before raising the issue of metaphysical primacy, i.e., the proper orientation in the subject-object relationship. Perhaps there are reasons which recommend this sequence of criticisms which I’m not presently aware of. The subject-object relationship is a precondition to any epistemological concerns, since epistemology has to do with how we know things, and this presupposes awareness of objects to begin with. Questions about the proper orientation between a subject and its objects are more fundamental than the intricacies of epistemological inquiries of this nature. It would seem to me that delving into complicated epistemological issues may leave vital metaphysical ground untilled, perhaps even ceded in the mind of the believer. And in the case of presuppositional apologists, who think the dispute between believers and non-believers rests in one’s “presuppositions,” it seems to me that the wisest strategy would be to focus on the believer’s starting points. I know mine, and I would argue that my starting points would have to be true even for the believer to imagine that his god exists, let alone claim or believe it exists (see for instance my blog Theism and Its Piggyback Starting Point). It is deliciously ironic that apologists who call themselves “Presuppositionalists” seem most unprepared when it comes to discussions about starting points, or “ultimate questions.” In that case, Chris Bolt still has not addressed my “ultimate questions” which I posed to him in early April.

Madmax asked:

Lastly, have you ever heard of any "good" objections to the non-cognitivism argument?

None that I can think of. In fact, I’m not aware of any good objections from theists to any worthy criticisms of theism to begin with. I tend to see from theists a lot of red herrings raises against criticisms of theistic beliefs, such as in the form of arbitrary distinctions. Arbitrary distinctions, such as the Calvinist assertion of proximate vs. ultimate causes in order to outrun theism’s inherent determinism, are often introduced in order, not only to avoid dealing with the implications of a particular theistic position, but also to cast the objector as confused or careless. Another example that comes to mind gives the Christian god two different wills, e.g., “God’s decretive will” vs. “God’s preceptive will.” Divisions of this nature are required, not because they are something one discovers in the world, but because a contradiction inherent in theism needs to be smoothed over.

I’m not sure if this will satisfy Madmax’s questions. But hopefully it will inspire further discussion, which is why I am responding to his questions in a separate post.

by Dawson Bethrick

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