Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Rejoinder to Chris Bolt

Chris Bolt has posted a response to my blog critiquing his statements concerning the conditions of knowledge.
Chris: “The discussion of concepts being entailed in beliefs presented by Bethrick does not strike me as being any sort of refutation.”

It’s a refutation of the view that knowledge is composed of beliefs, as if beliefs are irreducible primaries. I showed that this is incorrect in my blog.

Anyway, my point in regard to beliefs was that they are not irreducible, and that knowledge is in fact composed of concepts, not of “beliefs” per se. And since knowledge is composed of concepts, to have an account for knowledge you need a theory of concepts. Consequently, a worldview which lacks a theory of concepts (such as Christianity) cannot provide an account for knowledge.

Chris: “When I write that beliefs are not reducible to being natural or physical things I do not mean anything like what Bethrick takes ‘natural’ to mean. That is, he is guilty of equivocation.”

How am I equivocating? Either concepts are natural, or they are not. If they are, and beliefs are composed of concepts, then beliefs are in fact reducible to natural things. I am not equivocating because I do not equate “natural” with “physical.” They are two different concepts.

Chris: “Of course ‘concepts are a natural part of the human mind’s cognition’ in many senses, but not when we define ‘natural’ as ‘physical’ as opposed to ‘non-physical’.”

Who does this? And where did you make this clarification in your blog? I don’t see that you did.

Chris: “Now Bethrick may not be a materialist. If he is not a materialist I would love to hear it for this would prompt further inquiry regarding his doctrine.”

If by “materialism” we understand to mean a worldview which denies the axiom of consciousness, then obviously I am not a materialist. For my worldview affirms the axiom of consciousness.

Chris: “Bethrick writes that beliefs are ‘mental integrations’.”

Actually, I wrote this about concepts.

Chris: “Are mental integrations physical (natural) or not?”

Again, I do not equate the concepts “physical” and “natural.” I certainly do not think they are synonymous. Mental integrations are an activity of consciousness. So far as I know, I would not class them as “physical” objects.

Chris: “If he states that they are non-physical then he, by his own standards, fails to state what beliefs actually are with respect to his statement.”

As I stated above, I have identified mental integrations as an activity of consciousness. This is what they *are* in an ontological sense. You do acknowledge that consciousness exists, don’t you? You do recognize that consciousness is active, right?

Chris: “That is, Bethrick is only pressing the problem further back.”

How so?

Chris: “What about consciousness itself; is it physical?”

So far as I know, consciousness is its own kind of existent. Also, it is necessarily an attribute, namely of a certain class of biological organisms, and specifically one that is active in nature. Consciousness is not an entity. The organism possessing consciousness is the entity, and cosnciousness is one of its attributes.

Chris: “Again, natural objects do not possess the feature of ‘aboutness’.”

But physical objects can. For instance, when I go to the zoo and get a brochure, it's “about” the zoo. Of course, while the brochure is physical, it is not naturally occurring; it is man-made.

By the way, who says that “natural objects do not possess the feature of ‘aboutness’”? How would one show this without having omniscience of all natural objects?

Chris: “Concerning truth is Bethrick of the persuasion that an 'aspect of conceptual awareness' is physical or not?”

See above.

Again, since I affirm the axiom of consciousness, and I don’t think consciousness is a physical entity, but its own type of existent, there’s no problem here on my position.

I wrote:
"Truth is a relationship between the subject of cognition and its objects... the objects of consciousness are what they are independent of anyone's conscious activity."

Chris: “Perhaps this is a misunderstanding on my part but it looks like these two statements lead to a contradiction if they are not themselves contradictory.”

The problem is Chris' understanding. That the objects of consciousness are what they are independent of consciousness in no way contradicts the fact that we can have awareness of them. Where’s the contradiction?
I wrote: "the 'belief' that it is snowing in Miami because you dreamed it is snowing there, is only objectionable if one assumes the primacy of existence, the view that the objects of consciousness are what they are independent of consciousness activity, that the task of consciousness is not to create or alter reality, but to perceive and identify it."
Chris: “Actually no, for if the world is as God says it is then whether or not it is snowing in Miami is not contingent upon the human consciousness in view here.”

This ignores what the primacy of existence teaches, namely that the objects of consciousness are what they are independent of any consciousness. Notice that Chris needs to qualify his use of consciousness in his response to specify “human consciousness.” In other words, he cannot consistently affirm the primacy of existence; he must make allowances for some consciousness (which he can only imagine) as the base of contingence of occurrences on earth. Chris is simply confirming that Christianity assumes the primacy of consciousness. But I already know this.

Chris: “Perhaps it would be better for Bethrick to stick with the ‘self-evident’ nature of the primacy of existence rather than to try and prove it through such large leaps.”

I’ve not tried to prove it, nor do I need to. It is preconditional to any proof. The alternative to the primacy of existence amounts to affirming that wishing makes it so, that consciousness dictates what reality is and what its objects do and can do.

Chris: “Of course I do not quite understand the Objectivists’ more specific objection to Christian Theism at this point anyway, their theory being that consciousness itself exists and hence the axiom of consciousness does not in any way contradict the metaphysical primacy of existence.”

For starters, see here.

Chris: “If this is the case then I do not see where the problem is with the Christian God as a conscious being according to Objectivist standards.”

For starters, see here.

Chris: “Bethrick is missing my point here though. Even if the “primacy of existence” is assumed, why is it objectionable to suggest that there may be knowledge of snow in Miami based upon a dream? Why is it wrong to think this way? We are speaking of knowledge of facts, not facts themselves.”

I addressed this specifically in my blog. Relying on a dream to tell you about reality fails to adhere to an objective method.

Chris: “We are not speaking of whether or not it actually is snowing or not in Miami. Bethrick appears to confuse these two categories.”

Not at all, since my entire discussion explicitly recognizes the distinction between the subject of knowledge and the objects of knowledge. Hence the need to come to grips with the subject-object relationship, something no biblical author attempts to do.

by Dawson Bethrick

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Chris Bolt on the Conditions of Knowledge

Chris Bolt of the Choosing Hats blog has written a post on the Conditions of Knowledge. Chris is a presuppositionalist, and thus views knowledge and its conditions from a presuppositionalist perspective.


“Justified True Belief”

It is clear that Bolt assumes the “justified, true belief” account of knowledge (JTB) in his discussion of the conditions of knowledge. This conception of knowledge is widely popular, especially among academics, and of course presuppositionalists. Bahnsen makes it clear that his apologetic assumes the JTB view of knowledge (cf. Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, pp. 177, 181, et al.). Bahnsen in fact tells us that “knowledge is a subcategory of belief” (p. 159). Since the JTB account assumes that knowledge is comprised of beliefs, it would be important to have a good understanding of what a “belief” is. Though it is not completely clear to me what “belief” is for Bahnsen (he characterizes it as “a positive attitude toward a proposition, meaning that one relies upon it… in guiding one’s actions,” p. 160), but he does allow that “there are many kinds of belief… and many interesting aspects of belief” (Ibid.). Beyond remarks like these, Bahnsen offers little of value in enlightening his readers as to what a belief is.

In my view, it is not the case that “knowledge is a subcategory of belief,” as if the concept ‘belief’ is broader than and includes the concept ‘knowledge’ (as the concept ‘mammal’ is broader than and includes the concept ‘dog’). Rather, belief is the degree of confidence we have in a conclusion, affirmation, assessment, estimation, judgment, etc. Bahnsen comes close to this when he says that “beliefs are held with differing degrees of confidence” (Ibid.), but on my view belief is the degree of confidence – specifically one which is less than certain. For instance, if my co-worker asks where our boss is presently, I might respond, “I believe he’s at lunch,” which is to say that I have some confidence in this supposition. Importantly, by saying “I believe” this to be the case, I am signifying that I am not certain, but that’s the best that I can offer without further input, and I’m open to correction on the matter. Note also that the measure of this degree of confidence is typically indicated by use of modifiers, especially adverbs, such as when one says he “firmly believes” or “somewhat believes” something to be the case.

Now I reject the JTB account of knowledge not only because it assumes that knowledge is comprised of beliefs, but also because it erroneously treats “beliefs” as irreducible primaries. JTB treats beliefs as if they were the fundamental building blocks used in assembling our body of knowledge, which is sorely mistaken. This aspect of the JTB account of knowledge typically seems reasonable to many thinkers because beliefs are often thought of as complete units. But in fact, they are not irreducible. On the contrary, they are composed of yet more fundamental building blocks. Bahnsen’s own characterization of belief as “a positive attitude toward a proposition” only confirms this, for propositions are also not irreducible (as I point out here), and yet, on this understanding, in order to have belief, there’d first have to be propositions toward which to have “a positive attitude.” So the propositions, which themselves are not irreducible, would have to come before one could believe in them. What’s more, he would have to have awareness (indeed, knowledge) of those propositions in order to have any attitude toward them, even if that attitude is (as Bahnsen has it) only implicitly positive.

Take for example a very simple “belief” which might typically be counted as an example of a “justified, true belief.” Let that example be “dogs eat food.” As a unit of thought, it seems complete, right? Perhaps so. But the question for our purposes here is: is it irreducible? The answer is no, it is not irreducible. Specifically, it is not conceptually irreducible, which is to say: it can be broken down into its constituent components, namely the concepts ‘dog’, ‘eat’ and ‘food’. The “belief” is in fact composed of concepts. Without these concepts, how could you form this “belief”? You couldn’t. So to have the “belief” “dogs eat food,” you need the concepts which inform that belief. As the building blocks of “beliefs,” concepts are more fundamental than “beliefs,” and need to be accounted for. Where did you get them? Or, more specifically, how did you form them? Or did you? The answers to such questions are provided by a good theory of concepts, which is ultimately what is needed if one wants to give an “account” for knowledge.


The Need for a Theory of Concepts

Now, in Bolt’s paper, he says that “It appears that beliefs are not reducible to being natural or physical things.” But as can be shown with any “belief,” it can be reduced to its constituent concepts, and concepts are a natural part of the human mind’s cognition. There’s certainly nothing supernatural about concepts. One may interject at this point, saying: “But concepts aren’t physical!” That’s fine. But this only tells us what they are not; it does not answer the question of what they are. We need a theory of concepts for this. And the Objectivist theory of concepts does have an answer for this last question: they are mental integrations, i.e., the product of a conscious process. Objectivism is fully consistent with its foundations in making this identification since it recognizes the axiom of consciousness as one of its chief fundamentals.

Bolt then writes: “Truth is the same way. Truth has no mass, charge etc.; no scientifically measurable qualities.” That’s fine, but again, this only tells us what is not the case with respect to truth. It does not tell us anything positive about truth. On the Objectivist view, truth is an aspect of conceptual awareness, specifically its contextual correspondence to the objects of awareness. Truth is a relationship between the subject of cognition and its objects that is achievable only by following the strictures of an objective method. This is in keeping not only with the fact that the knowledge, as a vast conceptual network, has a hierarchical structure (from baseline concepts, including axiomatic concepts, to ever-higher abstractions), but also with the principle of the primacy of existence: that the objects of consciousness hold metaphysical primacy over the subject of consciousness. It is this principle which underwrites obviously true generalizations like “wishing doesn’t make it so” or “believing it to be true won’t make it true.” It is the recognition that the objects of consciousness are what they are independent of anyone’s conscious activity. This is the basis of the concept ‘objectivity’, since it recognizes the primacy of the object in the subject-object relationship. (The opposite view, that the subject holds metaphysical primacy over its objects, is known as subjectivism.)

So, since truth is an aspect of concepts, to provide a full account of truth, we need a theory of concepts.

Bolt also wrote:

If you define reality as being composed of nothing other than what is physical, material, natural, whatever; then you have neither belief nor truth available for you to use in your understanding of knowledge.

Of course, I do not define the concept ‘reality’ in this manner, and since I have the axiom of consciousness, there’s nothing to preclude the possibility of truth or knowledge for my position. So if what Bolt states here is a problem, it’s not a problem for me.

Bolt’s next statement is that “you also need to have warrant if you are going to have knowledge,” by which he means: “It is not enough to just happen to believe something that turns out to be true; that is not knowledge.” There’s something extra needed. Bolt explains this with the following example:

For example, if you believe that it is snowing in Miami, and it really is, but you believe it because you had a dream that it is snowing in Miami, then you do not have warrant and also do not have knowledge. If you see that it is snowing in Miami though, then you have warrant.

The “warrant” aspect of knowledge that Bolt is talking about here, is really nothing more than the contextual nature of conceptual integration, which involves an organization of elements, each relating to and having a bearing on the others, on a very wide scale, and its fidelity to an objective method. Here is where logic comes into play. The question is: what inputs inform this affirmation or “belief” that it is snowing in Miami? Suppose it really is snowing in Miami, but, as in Bolt’s example, you believe this because you dreamt it, not because you saw news reports and video footage informing a substantial contextual support for this belief. Bolt’s example shows how failing to apply an objective method can render untrue a statement which on other premises could very well be true. The fact that one has a dream that it is snowing in Miami has nothing to do with what is actually happening in Miami. Dreams are an activity of the subconscious, and are not a means of identifying what is true about things independent of consciousness, and Miami is certainly something that exists independent of consciousness (for example, it existed before I had ever heard of it, and continues to exist when I stop thinking about it). But of course, the “belief” that it is snowing in Miami because you dreamed it is snowing there, is only objectionable if one assumes the primacy of existence, the view that the objects of consciousness are what they are independent of conscious activity, that the task of consciousness is not to create or alter reality, but to perceive and identify it. If one drops this axiomatic truth from the context from his conceptual integrations, it is not very likely that his “beliefs” are going to coincide with reality in the manner we see in Bolt’s example.

The point here is that, again, we need a theory of concepts to have a full account of Bolt calls “warrant.”


Out of the Blue: Asserting Christianity

Then Bolt says a most perplexing thing:

a person who does not believe in the Christian God has no basis upon which to say that there is a real “right” or “wrong” to anything.

If I have a theory of concepts which addresses the issues which Bolt has raised in his paper about the conditions of knowledge, why would someone need to “believe in the Christian God” in order to have “basis upon which to say that there is a real ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to anything”? What relevance would belief in a supernatural being have? If anything, belief in the supernatural can only undermine the objectivity of one’s knowledge by underwriting it with a subjectivist platform.

Also, if (as we saw above) truth presupposes the primacy of existence (that the objects of consciousness are what they are independent of conscious activity), then how does believing in any god provide a “basis upon which to say that there is a real ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to anything”? Bolt does not explain, but what does he ultimately have in this regard other than “believing make it so”? And what if there is no god, does one need to still believe in one in order to have a “basis upon which to say that there is a real ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to anything”? If so, then essentially he is saying that the concepts “right” and “wrong” have no objective relationship to reality, and therefore there’s nothing about “right” and “wrong” for the human mind to discover in reality through an objective process, which is why “right” and “wrong” need to be “revealed” by a supernatural being. This explains why Christian apologists endorse a storybook view of knowledge rather than a conceptual understanding of knowledge: examining knowledge in terms of its conceptual nature would demystify knowledge, make it understandable to the human mind, demonstrate how legitimate concepts have an objective relationship to reality so that they can be discovered by an individual thinker, and liberate him from those who seek to control him through the subterfuge of religious indoctrination.

So it is no surprise that Bolt’s examination of the conditions of knowledge is not informed by an understanding of concept theory. Such an understanding is fatal to the religious agenda of his presuppositionalism.

And notice the stolen concept here. On Bolt’s view, whether or not there is a “basis upon which to say there is a real ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to anything” depends on what one believes. So one must form his beliefs (at least those upon which such a basis supposedly depends) without the benefit of such a basis. So how could he know that his beliefs are “right” and not “wrong”? To adopt such a reversal denies the genetic roots of the concepts ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ by establishing them after the fact upon settled beliefs which could only be accepted in the absence of such concepts. The result of this is internal cognitive suffocation which deprives the believer of such a view from ever being able to objectively consider the question: “On what basis would a person believe in the Christian God?” He essentially chokes on his own reversals.

If one is truly serious about understanding the “basis upon which to say that there is a real ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to anything,” he should be willing to acknowledge that it is in fact meta-epistemological, or more simply, available to us before we form any beliefs to begin with, rather than something which is put into place as a result of whatever beliefs a person might have. Believing one thing or another does not alter the universe or our natures.

Bolt holds that if one does not believe in the Christian god,

not only is there no room for belief and truth, but there is not room for a standard of right and wrong ways to come to believe something or to continue to believe something.

I’ve tried to make sense of this statement in light of the previous one, but I always come to the same difficulty. Essentially what Bolt seems to be saying is that the precondition for having “room for belief” is “believ[ing] in the Christian God.” But this is self-defeating. It’s like saying the precondition for having room for eyesight is seeing a particular thing. If you don’t see a particular thing, then you don’t have room for eyesight. But if I didn’t have eyesight in the first place, how could I be expected to see any particular thing to begin with? You need to have the ability before you can actually exercise it. Similarly with belief: if I do not first have “room for belief” so that I am able to have any belief, how can I believe anything? One needs to have the capacity to believe before he can exercise it. So it seems rather that we need to have room for belief before we could believe in any particular thing (be it the Christian god, the boogie man, Quetzalcoatl, or what have you).

But again, if (as I have shown above) (i) beliefs are not conceptually irreducible and (ii) truth presupposes the primacy of existence (the fundamental standard of right and wrong), then clearly what Bolt says cannot be the case. Believing that something is the case (e.g., that the Christian god is real) does not make something exist that would not exist if one did not have that belief. Consciousness simply does not have such orientation to reality. Also, since there is a fundamental distinction between what is real and what is only imaginary, what we identify as preconditions of knowledge must comply with this fact. Unfortunately, Christians have been unable to explain to me how I can reliably distinguish between what they call “God” and what they are merely imagining. Christians tell me that anyone can believe in their god. What they are really saying is that anyone can imagine their god. The stories found in the bible, for instance, serve this end by providing the believers’ imagination with allegorical and narrative inputs. But that’s fantasy, not reality. To understand knowledge, we need to understand that we’re primarily talking about knowledge of reality, not of fantasy. There’s a big difference here, and if we jettison the primacy of existence, we’ll be unable to make such distinctions.

Moreover, since believing one way or another does not alter, reshape or revise reality in any way, it is incoherent to say that disbelieving in something which is accessible to the human mind only by means of imagining it, will result in having “not room for a standard of right and wrong ways to come to believe something or to continue to believe.” We already have that standard, the primacy of existence, and it is attendant from the first instance of the subject-object relationship: the objects of consciousness have metaphysical primacy over the subject of consciousness whenever the subject is conscious. To dispute, deny or trivialize this, amounts to an endorsement for subjectivism.

Bolt also wrote:

The concept of beliefs having or lacking warrant is necessary for knowledge, but the concept is inconsistent with what non-Christians want to say about the world.

Well, I’m a non-Christian. What is it about knowledge’s need for “warrant” that is inconsistent with what I have said about the world? If something I have said needs clarifying, that’s one thing. But saying that something I have affirmed is inconsistent with the contextual nature of conceptual integration is a completely different charge, and I would want to see support for such a charge. But notice that this charge is sweeping in its scope: it makes a highly generalized pronouncement against “what non-Christians want to say about the world,” This insistence on antithesis between the believer and non-believer tends to put the believer in a most disadvantageous position, for now he is committed to denying whatever the non-Christian may affirm about the world. If the non-Christian affirms that the world exists independent of consciousness, the believer is now committed to saying, “no it doesn’t!” or risk having to take back his generalized pronouncement against “what non-Christians want to say about the world.” Indeed, how does the recognition that the world exists independent of consciousness conflict with knowledge’s need for what Bolt has called “warrant”? Blank out.

Finally, Bolt claims that

Christianity allows for these three parts of knowledge without much difficulty.

In fact, however, this is not true. For one thing, Christianity does not have a theory of concepts which addresses the three parts of knowledge which Bolt identified, namely “beliefs” (which, as we saw above, are not conceptually irreducible), truth (which is an aspect of conceptual awareness), and “warrant” (which requires a conceptual understanding of knowledge, not the storybook view found in the bible), in any philosophically intelligible manner. Also, since Christianity is not underwritten by the primacy of existence (objectivism), but by the primacy of consciousness (subjectivism), any attempt to address these issues as I have enlarged on them from a Christian point of view will necessarily be self-defeating. As a minimum requirement, Bolt does not even show how belief in the Christian god is necessary for these components of knowledge.


Will the Real Conditions of Knowledge Please Stand Up?

As for what actually constitute the “conditions of knowledge,” I point to the following:

1. Existence exists (the axiom of existence)
2. Consciousness exists (the axiom of consciousness)
3. Things which exist are what they are independent of conscious activity (the primacy of existence)
4. Consciousness possessing the ability to form concepts (e.g., the human mind)

The axiom of existence explicitly identifies the source of objects which can be known, and the axiom of consciousness formally recognizes the faculty by which we can know anything. Without these two elements, there’s nothing to be known, and no one to know it. The primacy of existence formally acknowledges that there is a distinction between what is known (the objects of knowledge) and the conscious activity by which the subject acquires awareness of those objects. The ability to form concepts is necessary to expand the subject’s consciousness beyond awareness of merely that which is immediately perceived (e.g., the specific tree in front of you) to discriminated awareness of an unlimited range of objects as units belonging to classes of existents (e.g., trees in general). Thus I have identified as conditions of knowledge the objects of knowledge, the subject of knowledge, the relationship between the subject and its objects, and the means by which the “one-many problem” is objectively addressed (thus stealing TAG’s “thunder” right out of its hungry jaws).

No one’s specific beliefs are going to make these exist or go away. I can believe that the moon is made of green cheese, but these four factors will still obtain: objects will still exist, consciousness is still consciousness of objects, the proper relationship between subject and object is still the primacy of existence, and knowledge of reality is still conceptual in nature. In fact, notice that these four conditions would need to be in place for me to even consider the notion that the moon is made of green cheese, let alone believe it. And yet Bolt is saying that the components of knowledge mentioned above (“beliefs,” truth, “warrant”) are inconsistent with the conditions I’ve pointed out (“what non-Christians want to say about the world”)?

Clearly there are some problems on the Christian side of the fence which need to be sorted out. Good luck!

by Dawson Bethrick

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Friday, July 10, 2009

The Concept of "Chance": Right and Wrong Uses

Quite often, the only power that an apologetic argument has is the degree to which it denigrates rival positions. And even then, such power is merely vicarious, in that it sustains itself on the intellectual default of its practitioners and unwitting bystanders. The zeal to denigrate a rival position often deteriorates into the practice of speaking for one’s opponents and inserting words into their mouths in an effort to discredit their position at all costs. The result of course is nothing more grandiose than a mere straw man.


The Supposed Problem

A case in point is the supposition that non-belief in the Christian god logically entails the affirmation that “chance” rules the day. In the presuppositionalist literature, the view that non-believers monolithically assume a “universe of chance” is so commonplace that adherents to this school of apologetics probably think it is incontestably true. It’s not. The notion of a “universe of chance” is certainly condemnable, but not for the mystical reasons for which Christian apologists denounce it. Moreover, that the universe is governed by “chance,” is not the testimony of every non-believer. Nor does logical consistency require it. One does not need to believe in any god in order to consistently avoid the notion that the universe is a “universe of chance.” In fact, quite the opposite is the case.

But you wouldn’t know this from reading any texts by presuppositionalists. Not only is the view that non-believers must assume a “universe of chance” widely prevalent in their writings, that non-believers allegedly assume such a universe is a fundamental aspect of their defense of Christianity through antithesis, that is: through making all alternatives to Christianity appear to be unacceptable, Christianity prevails by default. If non-Christian worldviews (especially those which reject any form of theism altogether) ultimately reduce to the affirmation of a “universe of chance,” then why shouldn’t a more sober-headed understanding of reality be preferred?


The Exhibits

Let’s take a look at some examples and see what the presuppositionalists are saying.

Bahnsen writes:

As always, the trouble for the unbeliever is that in denying the existence of God he is asserting chance as the ultimate backdrop of the universe. (Pushing the Antithesis, pp. 199-200)

Is that right? If I deny the existence of the Christian god, I am at the same time “asserting chance as the ultimate backdrop of the universe”? How does this follow?

Clearly what Bahnsen assumes here is an either-or viewpoint: either one believes that the Christian god exists and created everything in the universe through its conscious actions, or “he is asserting chance as the ultimate backdrop of the universe.”

It’s clear that the option which Bahnsen prefers (that his god created everything in the universe through conscious actions) assumes the primacy of consciousness, for it inherently grants power to conscious actions over its objects. But the opposite of this view is the primacy of existence. Does the primacy of existence entail or logically lead to the view that “chance” is “the ultimate backdrop of the universe”? No, it does not. On the basis of the primacy of existence, the universe (properly understood as the totality of everything which exists) is ultimate. On the primacy of existence, there is no “backdrop” behind the universe in the first place.

So it appears we’re dealing with a false alternative here, both suspiciously pointing to the primacy of consciousness metaphysics.

And for Bahnsen, “chance” is some really bad stuff:

Chance destroys the very possibility of meaning and significance, taking with it the notion of dignity. (Pushing the Antithesis, p. 226)

Elsewhere Bahnsen tells us that “chance” also destroys the conceptual activity of counting:

Counting involves an abstract concept of law, universals, or order – which contradicts the unbeliever’s view of the universe as a random or chance realm of material particulars. (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 42n.18)

You get the idea. “Chance” is a toxic substance which contaminates all non-believing thought. That’s what we’re supposed to believe.


Defining “Chance”

What is this thing which presuppositionalists call “chance”? Is there some sweet moment where they finally identify what they’re talking about?

There is indeed!

In his Van Til Glossary, John Frame tells us that by ‘chance’ presuppositionalists apparently mean

Events that occur without cause or reason.

So now we have a definition of what they’re talking about.


A Sudden Problem?

Oddly, however, Cornelius Van Til – the granddaddy of this school of apologetics – emphatically announces that:

About chance no manner of assertion can be made. (The Defense of the Faith, p. 127)

It seems that Van Til just made an assertion about something about which he says “no manner of assertion can be made.” It’s even worse for John Frame, who actually gives a definition for ‘chance’ above. If it were truly the case that “no assertion can be made” about ‘chance’, Frame’s definition would not be possible. You cannot define something about which “no assertion can be made,” for the definition itself would be an assertion about it. In fact, if what Van Til says were true, we could have no idea of what he’s talking about when he says that “no manner of assertion can be made” about something.

It seems that presuppositionalists need to get their act together. Indeed, Van Til’s stipulation about ‘chance’ is quoted in Bahnsen’s book Pushing the Antithesis (p. 208), with no acknowledgement of the contradictory nature of such a statement. Perhaps it just slipped by him?


Exploring the Problem as Presuppositionalism Views It

Moving on, Bahnsen tells us why “chance” is such a problem:

In a chance universe, all particular facts would be random, have no classifiable identity, bear no pre-determined order or relation, and thus be unintelligible to man’s mind. (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 38n.10)

If it appears that Bahnsen is mixing metaphysics here, you’re right. By setting up the problem in the manner that Bahnsen does here, he is attempting to blur a fundamental distinction by advancing a package-deal cast in an either-or struggle. “Random” here is pitted expressly against “pre-determined order,” which of course implies a ruling consciousness which does the pre-determining. The implication here is (i) either facts are arranged according to some “pre-determined order” (and therefore not “random”) and therefore have “classifiable identity” and consequently are not “unintelligible to man’s mind,” or (ii) they are “random” and “have no classifiable identity” and consequently “unintelligible to man’s mind.” The resulting dichotomy seeks to compel thinkers to accept the need for a ruling consciousness which “accounts for” the “pre-determined order” allegedly necessary for facts to have identity and be intelligible as they reject the alternative which renders facts “unintelligible to man’s mind.”

Here is where Bahnsen is in bad need of some serious premise-checking. The question he should have been asking is whether facts are objective (i.e., exist independent of anyone’s conscious intentions) or subjective (i.e., ultimately dependent on someone’s conscious intentions). But this would remove the obscurity which is so vital to Bahnsen’s apologetic strategy. If facts are objective, then this would mean that they are what they are (i.e., have identity) independent of consciousness, which would fall far short of implicating theism as the proper philosophical basis for the intelligibility of facts. To imply theism, Bahnsen needs the element which he did stipulate, namely “pre-determined order,” which of course suggests a ruling consciousness which a consciousness capable of pre-determining the nature of facts and responsible for the identity which the facts actually possess. But this would entail that facts are in the final analysis subjective, i.e., ultimately dependent upon a form of consciousness.

As a result, Bahnsen is essentially package-dealing “classifiable identity” with the primacy of consciousness metaphysics. This package-deal is then pitted in a false dichotomy against a rival position, namely “a chance universe,” which – given its alleged commitment to facts having “no classifiable identity” and being “unintelligible to man’s mind” – is to be rejected. Bahnsen’s package-deal, then, intends to prevail by default, implicating theism as the only paradigm in which facts could have “classifiable identity” and thus be “intelligible to man’s mind.”

But as I have pointed out elsewhere (e.g., here), identity is concurrent with the objective fact of existence. Even more, the law of identity necessarily implies the primacy of existence. To exist is to be something (identity), and this fact obtains independent of consciousness. The recognition that objects (including the facts which we discover in the world) have identity is wholly incompatible with the metaphysical basis of Bahnsen’s theism, namely the primacy of consciousness. In fact, it is on the basis of Bahnsen’s theism that facts would ultimately be subject to the whims of a supernatural consciousness (which is not constrained by any external limitations), and what could be more “random” than this? As Van Til pointed out:

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

On the Christian position, then, which Bahnsen is seeking to validate, facts must be subordinate to conscious intentions. In other words, some form of consciousness must hold metaphysical primacy over the facts in order for them to be under such control. This is the subjective theory of facts: the facts are what they are only because some conscious subject has determined (or “pre-determined”) them to be what they are. And given the immense leeway which Van Til claims on behalf of his god’s sovereignty over facts, any fact which you or I may be regarding could be changed (“set into new relation to created law”) at any moment. Certainly Van Til & co. do not think their god needs our prior approval, or to provide us with advance notification, in order to set any fact “into new relation to created law.” So from man’s perspective, the facts couldn’t be anything other than utterly random, for they are subject to divine whim. And we know that this is whim because “there are no limitations on [the Christian god’s] knowledge, power, or presence” (John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 101), and the laws of logic are not “principles outside of God to which He must measure up” (Bahnsen, Pushing the Antithesis, p. 210). And even to the extent that this god supposedly “observes the laws of logic,” it is “not because there are laws ‘above’ him to which he must conform, but because he is by nature a logical person” (Frame, Op. cit., p. 158). But even here we find the disclaimer that this refers to “God’s own logic, which may not be identical to any humanly devised logical system” (Ibid.). So even though this god “observes the laws of logic,” it could be an altogether different type of “logic” than what you and I might have in mind; it’s “God’s own logic.” Which can only mean: all bets are off. Divine whim is the ultimate governing factor in determining (“pre-determining”) what the facts and their “relation to created law” may happen to be. As Psalms 115:3 confirms: “our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.”

So ironically, where Bahnsen carries on as if he were concerned about preserving facts from “randomness” and having “no classifiable identity,” the metaphysical position to which he wants to associate facts relegates them to precisely this by making them subject to a supernatural consciousness which “does whatever He pleases.”

So the solution to the “problem” which apparently worries Bahnsen, is adherence to the primacy of existence metaphysics. This entails the axioms of existence, identity and consciousness in their proper relationship. Since existence exists independent of consciousness, and to exist is to be something specific (i.e., to have identity), facts are what they are independent of consciousness. This means they have identity, this means they are not “unintelligible to man’s mind.” Moreover, this does not entail that facts are “random” or the product of “chance” or that we live in “a chance universe.” More on this will be brought out below.

It is through such gimmicks as those we’ve seen above (package-deals, false dichotomies, etc.) that presuppositional apologists insinuate that the assumption of what they call a “chance universe” is a corollary of rejecting the view that the universe was created and is ruled by a supernatural consciousness. Reject the Christian god, and you’re stuck with “a chance universe.” Apparently we are to think this consequence results automatically, as Van Til explains:

In every non-Christian concept of reality brute facts or chance plays a basic role. This is so because any one who does not hold to God’s counsel as being man’s ultimate environment has no alternative but to assume or assert that chance is ultimate. Chance is simply the metaphysical correlative of the idea of the autonomous man. (The Defense of the Faith, p. 140)

By “autonomous man” Van Til essentially has in mind any human being (male or female) who has not surrendered his mind to the dictates of Christian god-belief. So even though “chance” is something about which “no manner of assertion can be made,” it’s clear that Van Til conceives of “chance” as a “metaphysical correlative” of the non-believer’s mindset. Apparently this means some kind of ontological corollary to non-belief in the Christian god in which “chance” is some kind of power, force or elemental phenomenon responsible for the existence and nature of the universe. The important point to note here is that, for Van Til (and apparently for other presuppositionalists cited as well), “chance” is metaphysical. And if we consider John Frame’s definition (“events that occur without cause or reason”), “chance” seems to be understood by these writers as some kind of metaphysical alternative to causality. This will become relevant in my criticism below.

This supposed bond between “autonomous man” and “a chance universe” apparently has quite a pedigree. Van Til traces this fatal association back to the myth of Adam:

When Adam, for all men, refused to take God’s prediction of punishment for disobedience seriously, he virtually said that the facts and laws of the universe are not under God’s control but operate by virtue of Chance. This is the ultimate and utter irrationalism. (The Defense of the Faith, 1st ed., p. 237; quoted in Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 392)

Again we find that presuppositionalism’s denigration of non-Christian worldviews trades on a false dichotomy: either the universe was created by a conscious being and everything which takes place within it is ruled by a conscious being’s intentions (cf. “God’s thoughts make the world what it is and determine what happens” – Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 243), or it is a product of “chance” and every “event” which takes place within it “occur[s] without cause or reason.” We find this false dichotomy affirmed over and over, in one manner or another, perhaps on the hope that readers will accept it as true uncritically.

The reason why these are the only options considered, is that by limiting the alternative to these two options the apologist can give his preferred position the appearance of having the intellectual advantage. Again, the tactic here is to camouflage the Christian position as the more sensible while describing the only alternative considered in so denigrating a manner that no one would want to be associated with it. Persuasion, not proof, seems to be the goal behind such measures. As validation of this analysis, we only need to recognize that, if Christianity really did have an intellectual advantage, such arbitrary dichotomies would not be needed. And so far, we’re told that these are the only two alternatives available. I’ve seen no argument which limits our options to the two alternatives considered by Bahnsen & co., and as my above analysis demonstrated, the presuppositionalists’ preferred alternative lands them right back into the randomness which they feign to despise.

But the charade continues. For instance, as “marks of the natural man in his attitude toward the interpretation of the facts (events) of the world,” Van Til listed the following:

The facts of man’s environment are not created or controlled by the providence of God. They are brute facts, uninterpretated and ultimately irrational. The universe is a Chance controlled universe. (The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture, quoted in Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p.310)

Again, we see only two alternatives in play here: either the universe was created by the Christian god and “the facts of man’s environment” are “controlled by the providence of God,” or “the universe is a Chance controlled universe.” Note again that “chance” here is used to denote some otherwise unidentified metaphysical phenomenon which somehow has the power to “control” the universe. The alternative to theism described here is apparently intended to give the reader the impression of an unstoppable chaotic force behind a wall of knobs, switches and dials randomly generating events around the universe and frantically manipulating the objects within it. Van Til must have imagined that this is what non-Christians believe about the universe.

But the presumption of the primacy of consciousness underlying the Christian alternative which presuppositionalism wholeheartedly endorses is not hard to spot. Observe the following statement by Bahnsen, in which the same false dichotomy is being reiterated:

In the non-Christian outlook, the space-time universe exists and is intelligible apart from God; whatever happens is random, and facts are not preinterpreted, related, or controlled by a personal mind. (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 313)

It is true that the universe is intelligible, and if it’s the case that the presuppositionalist’s god does not exist to make it so, then the presuppositionalist needs to get over it. However, it does not follow from the fact that the Christian god is an irrational fantasy that “whatever happens is random.” Nor do facts need to be “preinterpreted, related, or controlled by a personal mind” in order to be causal as opposed to “random” (or “chance-controlled,” which denies causality). The universe is the sum total of all that exists, and it is a fact that it exists. As such, it would commit the fallacy of the stolen concept to affirm that the universe is a product of something prior to it. To suppose that the universe is a product of something prior to it, is to affirm the existence of this something prior, but since the concept ‘universe’ includes everything which exists, one would essentially be affirming the existence of something which exists outside the sum total of everything which exists. This is the case even if one wants to assert, as Christians do, the existence of some “personal mind” prior to the universe, a consciousness which allegedly created the universe and which "controls whatsoever comes to pass" (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 160; italics added). It is in this way that affirming the existence of the Christian god also commits the fallacy of the stolen concept, since this is the fundamental error of any position which ultimately rests on the primacy of consciousness metaphysics.

So just as we rightfully begin with the fact that existence exists as an irreducible primary, we begin with the existence of the universe by extension.

Whether one holds to the primacy of existence (the objective view of reality) or the primacy of consciousness (the subjective view of reality), has a dramatic impact on his understanding of the nature of facts (for further discussion on the nature of facts, see my Rival Philosophies of Fact). On the basis of the primacy of existence, the facts do not conform to anyone’s conscious intentions. Wishing, emoting, evading, fantasizing and pouting will not alter them. On the basis of the primacy of consciousness, however, facts do ultimately conform to someone’s consciousness, and consequently can be altered by the wishing, imagining, pleasure and mood swings of the ruling consciousness. It is because Christianity rests on the primacy of consciousness that its adherents cannot consistently reject the view that wishing makes it so.

Failing to grasp this distinction, however, Van Til taught his students that non-Christians, by virtue of their non-Christian conception of the world, “assume the idea of brute fact in metaphysics” (The Defense of the Faith, p.147). Here we have another connotation-rich description which is supposed to make readers suspicious of non-Christian philosophies before examining them. Bahnsen explains “the idea of brute fact in metaphysics” as:

the view that there is no plan or purpose for events, and that the facts have no necessary relationship to each other and require no interpretive context to be known and understood; everything happens randomly, “by chance.” (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 268n.20)

Here we see again another package-deal being foisted on us by means of yet another false dichotomy. By “the view that there is no plan or purpose for events,” Bahnsen does not allow for the distinction between the metaphysically given and the man-made. There are in fact some events which are the result of human initiation (such the production of an automobile in a factory) which are undeniably purposeful and executed according to a plan. On the other hand, there are events which are clearly not the result of human initiation, such as the sprouting of a weed on some abandoned patch of land. To say that there is “planning” behind this is nonsensical, but according to Bahnsen’s worldview there is a supernatural consciousness worthy of worship which busies itself planning such things.

But where Bahnsen errs is in supposing that the view that the sprouting of a weed in an abandoned patch of land is not the result of planning logically entails the view that such events happen causelessly (since he says it “happens… ‘by chance’,” and “chance” as we saw above denotes “events which occur without cause or reason”). Yes, there is a cause for the weed’s sprouting; it did not sprout “by chance” if “by chance” essentially means “without cause.” The either-or of Bahnsen’s false dichotomy here essentially states that either everything happens according to some cosmic plan, or it happens without any cause whatsoever. I see no reason whatsoever to accept such a view, and good reasons to reject it (since activity like a weed sprouting out of the ground definitely has a cause even if it is not “planned” by some supervising mind).

Now it should be clear that it is utterly misrepresentative for presuppositional apologetics to characterize non-Christian worldviews as necessarily assuming or unable to consistently avoid a “universe of chance” as Bahnsen & co. describe it here. Given Frame’s definition of “chance,” a “universe of chance” would be a universe in which the “events that occur” within it “occur without cause or reason.” While there may be non-Christians here or there who might affirm something as bizarre as this, I can’t say I’ve ever encountered any myself, and I know for a fact that Objectivism neither teaches this nor affirm positions which inevitably lead to this view. Moreover, in the case of those occasional non-theists who are quoted affirming that things in the universe happened “by chance” (Bahnsen quotes a few examples on pp. 206-207 of Pushing the Antithesis), I suspect that if you asked them for clarification, they would not deny causation in the activities they speak about. At any rate, I see no reason why one would need to, or why denying Christianity entails denying causality or adopting the “chance universe” view which Bahnsen has described so vividly for us.


Cutting Both Ways

Christians often say that, if the universe was not created by a supernatural being (preferably by the one which they worship), then it exists “by chance,” as a “random” fluke, and that it is therefore “irrational.” Not only does this kind of claim misappropriate the concept of rationality (the concept ‘rationality’ applies to actions, including thought, chosen by a consciousness capable of conceptual thought, not to sticks and stones, water droplets or asteroid belts), it can safely be said that if it is valid for the Christian to speak for the non-Christian’s position in this manner, there’s no reason why the non-Christian cannot do likewise. “God is uncaused and eternally self-existent,” explains Bahnsen. “There is nothing prior to God accounting for His origin and existence” (Pushing the Antithesis, p. 60). Like the non-Christian, the Christian too begins with something that was not created by a supernatural (or any other) being. So just as the non-Christian is said essentially to hold that the universe exists “by chance” and is thus “irrational,” so too must the Christian believe that his god exists “by chance” and is thus “irrational.”

And it wouldn’t stop there. The “chance-boundedness” of theism turns up all over the place. For instance, when Christians say that their god is “rational,” it must be “just by chance” that it’s rational; when Christians say that the laws of logic “reflect” the nature of the Christian god, it must be “just by chance” that they do this; when they say that the Christian god chose to save them from their sins, it must be “just by chance” that the Christian god chose to do this. And so on.


A Two-fold Correction

All of these characterizations of non-Christian positions err in two significant ways:

1) They treat the concept ‘chance’ as if it were a metaphysical concept (it’s not, ‘chance’ is an epistemological concept), and

2) They supppress the fact that one is not committed to denying the causality of events simply because he rejects either Christian god-belief or the metaphysical subjectivism at the basis of the Christian religion.

Let’s examine these two points in detail.

First, it is important to notice how presuppositionalists are using the concept ‘chance’ in their characterizations of non-Christian worldviews. As Van Til makes it clear above, he is using “chance” to refer to some metaphysical phenomenon, as if it were a type of force, energy, or substance controlling the universe and the activity which takes place within it. I know of no such phenomenon which somehow causes events to happen “without cause” (as Frame’s definition requires). Rather, ‘chance’ is an epistemological concept which is used to indicate a probability assessment, or that the series of causes leading up to an action or set of actions is unknown or only partially known. Both of these are epistemological concerns, not metaphysical forces acting “behind the scenes” cancelling out the law of causality.

Say for instance, that I was walking along a sidewalk one day and “by chance” a twenty dollar bill happened to be blowing across my path just as I came upon it. (This actually happened to me in 2004.) Had the bank note blown by 15 seconds earlier or five seconds later, I probably would not have seen it. I might say that this happened “by chance” because I am personally unaware of where the twenty came from, how long it was rolling around on the street, what snags it might have encountered prior it to being blown into my range of vision, etc. But surely I am not denying the fact that certain causes culminated in my encounter with it. By saying that I came upon the bill “by chance,” I am not invoking some metaphysical alternative to causality, such that Frame’s definition and the presuppositionalists’ characterizations could at all be said to apply. Nor does saying that this one event happened “by chance” suggest that we live in “a chance universe” in which all “events… occur without cause or reason.” In no way am I denying the law of causality by referring to this incident as a “chance” occasion.

This leads to the second point. It is important also to notice that disbelief in the Christian god or other supernatural being which allegedly created the universe and “controls whatsoever comes to pass” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 160), does not in any way commit a person to the belief that the universe is “controlled by chance,” that “events… occur without cause,” etc. The law of causality is the law of identity applied to action. Since to exist is to be something specific, action – since it also exists – also has identity. The concept of causality is based on the recognition that an entity’s actions necessarily depend on the nature of the entity performing them. There’s no need to suppose that a god is needed to be responsible for this arrangement, for the same law would necessarily apply to any god proposed to exist. The proof for this is the fact that such proposals by their nature assume the very relationship which the law of causality identifies between the god it proposes and the actions it allegedly performed to make the objects we perceive act as they do. Theistic proposals ignore this, thus committing themselves to a series of stolen concepts. Causality has its basis in existence, which is both metaphysically and conceptually irreducible. There is no “other side” to existence. There is no “transcending” existence. The only alternative which human beings have to existence is what they can imagine, and the imaginary is not real.

Even when someone exclaims, “What are the chances of that happening?!” he’s essentially talking about probability, which properly belongs in the province of epistemology. (Here I recommend Peikoff’s discussion of the concepts of possibility and probability in his book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 175-179.) Probability is not some mystical force controlling reality behind the scenes.

In one of his lectures on science, Binswanger points out how we often give probabilities value-laden significance which is not inherent in the probabilities considered in and of themselves. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it can skew our understanding of the relevant facts if it is not recognized. To illustrate this, Binswanger uses the example of an ordinary deck of cards. Give the deck a thorough shuffling, and then draw four cards off the top. Suppose you immediately draw four aces. You’d probably say something like “What are the chances of that happening?!” Had you drawn the seven of clubs, the three of hearts, the ten of diamonds and the nine of spades, you’d probably not see anything significant about this. But in fact the odds of drawing this hand are the same as drawing all four aces. That’s because every card in the deck is just as unique as the next. There’s only one seven of clubs just as there’s only one ace of spades. The reason why we place more significance on the hand with four aces is because this has significant value in actual play, such as in a hand of poker.

This is just one of the reasons why we need not be so impressed by claims of statistical improbabilities in regard to naturally recurring phenomena so delightfully quoted by theistic apologists, such as in the case of the emergence or development of life on earth. Even if apologists successfully resist the temptation to inflate their statistical calculations to make natural phenomena seem all the more improbable, why should their statistics impress us? Something’s got to happen, and improbable things happen all the time, such as drawing four unique cards from a shuffled deck, meeting one’s future spouse for the first time, or handling a five dollar bill with a specific serial number.

In my wallet I have a five dollar bill with the serial number FD83499689A. Of all the millions upon millions of five dollar bills which have circulated (according to the US Department of the Treasury FAQs, “the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) produced approximately 38 million notes a day” in fiscal year 2007, “with a face value of approximately $750 million”), what are the chances that this one should one day find its way into my hands? I’d suppose the probability is astronomically small, but yet it happened all the same. And yet my worldview in no way requires that this particular five dollar bill wound up in my hands “without cause.”

Say that on the spur of the moment, I decide to take a road trip. As I drive across the country from my native California, I take a left at Albuquerque, and after a few twists and turns and rolls of the dice I find myself in a city I’ve never visited before, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. As I make my way into this city I decide that I want to stop and get out and walk around a bit. So I look for a place to park my car. Eventually I find a large public parking structure with six or eight floors, drive in and meander through the structure’s bosom until I find a vacant spot. I carefully ease my 2003 Ford Focus into the spot and turn off the engine. Then I think to myself, “what were the chances that sometime in my life I would one day end up parking my car in this particular parking spot?” Astronomical, right? Of all the thousands of parking spots in Pittsburg, PA, it’s already a statistical improbability. But given the context that I had no prior intention of going to Pittsburg in the first place, that I could have gone to any other city, or could have decided not to take a road trip in the first place, this very well might not have happened at all. Given this overall context, which includes my own choices and actions, it seems so improbable that I should one day park my car in this one specific parking spot in Pittsburg, PA, that one might suppose that it’s not possible at all. But in fact it happened. And it is completely natural, wholly consistent with “naturalistic” presuppositions, and in no way an affront to the law of causality. No laws of nature have been defied, and the outcome in fact does have a causal basis.

Does any of this require that I throw up my hands in despair and suppose that an invisible magic being is responsible for it all? No, not at all. At no point in any of this is the primacy of existence brought into question or doubt. Consequently, the moral of the story is that presuppositionalism’s tendentious usage of “chance” is nothing more than a big bluff, one which ironically backfires on itself.

by Dawson Bethrick

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Does Logic Presuppose the Christian God? Part II: Reasons Why Logic Cannot Presuppose the Christian God, #4: The Trinity

Christianity holds that “God exists as a tri-personality” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 12). This is known as the doctrine of the Trinity. Consequently, when presuppositionalists claim that logic presupposes the Christian god, they are claiming that logic presupposes this thing which they call “Trinity.” The presuppositionalist claim that logic could not exist without the Christian god, is logically equivalent to the claim that logic could not exist without the Trinity.

Now, the notion of the Trinity is perplexing enough by itself. Christian theologians throughout the centuries have tried their best to make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity, but at the end of the day they all seem to finish by throwing up their hands in resignation, only to announce that it's a big “mystery.”

To then turn around and claim on top of this that there could be no logic without the existence of the Trinity, stretches credibility to new heights of absurdity.

The question I’ve always had for the doctrine of the Trinity, and one which I’ve not seen the literature address explicitly, is: how many consciousnesses are we talking about? Is the Trinity one consciousness, or three consciousnesses? How could one discover this? Or could it be discovered? Christians tend to claim that they can only know what their god has “revealed” to them about itself, suggesting that one could not discover these things without such spoon-fed information. I have not found any text which directly speaks to this, but it seems a most basic question. Often we see statements to the effect that the Christian god is

three unique persons, each one with individual personality traits… Trinity does not mean three gods exist who together make up God. That would be tritheism. God is one…. There is only one God, but within that unity are three eternal and co-equal Persons – all sharing the same essence and substance, but each having a distinct existence… There’s no question that the Trinity is one of the great mysteries of God and the Bible. Yet that should not keep us from trying to understand it and what it means for us. (Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz, Knowing God 101: A Guide to Theology in Plain Language, p. 57)

If “three unique persons” entails three distinct consciousnesses (and why wouldn’t it? Doesn’t a unique “Person” have its own consciousness?), it seems that we are in fact dealing with polytheism. But Christians will vehemently deny this interpretation. As the statement above asserts: “Trinity does not mean three gods exist who together make up God.” But since “God” as such supposedly includes these “three unique persons,” this doctrine suggests that “God” is more than any of its “three unique persons” considered individually. After all, for example, what would the Son be without the Father and the Spirit? But this view is also apparently rejected, for we are told that “each person in the Godhead is both equal to and the same as the others” (Ibid., p. 58). What’s more, “each Person in the Trinity is equal to God,” such that:

God the Father is God
Jesus the Son is God
The Holy Spirit is God (Ibid., pp. 58-59)

Given that the members of the Trinity are “unique persons,” and each of these members is equated with “God,” I count three distinct gods there. How about you?

But no, Christians insist that the Christian god is only one god: “Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4).

Are you with me so far?

Let’s see if some other statements can help clarify the matter. Regarding the so-called “Trinitarian” nature of the Christian god, John Frame explains:

the Christian God is a three in one. He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is only one God… But the Father is God…, the Son is God…, and the Spirit is God… Somehow they are three, and somehow they are one. The Nicene Creed says that they are one “being” but three “substances,” or, differently translated, one “substance” and three “persons.” I prefer simply to say “one God, three persons.” The technical terms should not be understood in any precise, descriptive sense. The fact is that we do not know precisely how the three are one and the one is three. We do know that since the three are God, they are equal; for there is no superiority or inferiority within God. To be God is to be superior to everything. All three have all the divine attributes. (Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 46; emphasis added)

So far as I can tell, we’re still faced with the same muddle here. Note that both sources so far consulted confess in one way or another that this doctrine poses stumblingblocks to sense-making. Above we were told that “there’s no question that the Trinity is one of the great mysteries of God and the Bible,” and here Frame admits that Christians “do not know precisely how the three are one and the one is three.” When Frame announces that “somehow they are three, and somehow they are one,” he’s essentially telling us that he doesn’t know how they can be both one and three at the same time. But then we’re expected to accept this as knowledge. By suggesting that the difficulty lies in his inability to find the “precise” terms by which this quizzical relationship can be best described, Frame is trying to trivialize the problem: the difficulty is not in describing it with terminological precision, but in reconciling the elements which are said to enjoy a relationship which can only be described in a manner which points to contradiction. One should not be in the habit of accepting contradictions only to say that the contradiction results merely from the inability to find the right terms to describe it. Christians have had 2,000 years to find the right terms, but the problem still persists. Doesn’t that tell us something? Then again, for the religious mind, which opens itself up to accepting absurd notions, this may be seen as unproblematic. But insofar as identifying the proper basis of logic is concerned, the doctrine of the Trinity is a haunting spectre which decisively disqualifies the presuppositionalist claim that the laws of logic "reflect" the Christian god's "nature." The laws of logic definitely do not reflect the nature of something so monstrously irrational as Christianity's doctrine of the Trinity.

Recalling the teaching of his professor, Cornelius Van Til, on the quagmire haunting the doctrine of the Trinity, Frame writes:

With regard to the doctrine of the Trinity, Van Til denies that the paradox of the three and one can be resolved by the formula "one in essence and three in person." Rather, "We do assert that God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person." Van Til's doctrine, then, can be expressed "One person, three persons" -- an apparent contradiction. This is a very bold theological move. Theologians are generally most reluctant to express the paradoxicality of this doctrine so blatantly. (Van Til: The Theologian, p. 14)

With expressions like “One person, three persons,” which are meant to refer to the same entity, how could the believer not be affirming a contradiction? Presuppositionalists want to call it merely “an apparent contradiction,” which suggests that what we’re seeing is not truly a contradiction, and that the problem lies with us as onlookers in the matter. I suppose one could swaddle any contradiction he can’t let go of with such disclaimers. If I affirmed that the sun is both a sun but also three planets, one could be forgiven for supposing that I have contradicted myself. But what would stop me from qualifying my statement by saying it’s merely “an apparent contradiction”? Contradictions are to be taken seriously in philosophical matters, and where there’s smoke, they’re often something smoldering if not raging on fire.

In trying to sort all this out, Frame writes elsewhere:

How, then, do we relate the “one person” to the “three persons”? Van Til asserts that “this is a mystery that is beyond our comprehension.” Indeed! But he does not say that the two assertions are contradictory. Are they in fact contradictory? That may seem obvious, but in fact it is not necessarily the case. Anybody who has studied logic knows that something can be both A and not-A if the two A’s have different senses. In this case, God can clearly be both one person and not-one person, if the meaning of “person” changes somewhat between the two uses… How is the word person used in different senses or respects? Obviously, there is some difference between the sense of “person” applied to the oneness of God and the sense applied to the three members of the Trinity. Van Til would agree, for example, with the creedal statements that the Father is the begetter, the Son is begotten, and the Spirit is the one who proceeds; the whole Godhead is neither begetter, begotten, nor proceeder. But neither Van Til nor I would claim to be able to state, precisely and exhaustively, the difference between God’s essence and the individual persons of the Godhead. (Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, pp. 68-69; quoting Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 230)

None of this bolsters any confidence that what we’re dealing with here is anything other than a contradiction, that is, of course, unless one is confessionally invested in the view that it simply cannot be a contradiction as a matter of religious faith. We’re told that “something can be both A and not-A if the two A’s have different senses.” But in logic, the fundamental law of identity denotes an identical relationship of an object to itself, such that A is A. Otherwise we’re faced with an equivocation. At any rate, Frame’s suggestion that the terms here have different senses does him little good. He says “obviously, there is some difference between the sense of ‘person’ applied to the oneness of God and the sense applied to the three members of the Trinity.” But is this really “obviously” the case? I don’t think the term “person” implies that it is being used in different senses here. Rather, it is the dogmatic insistence that there is no contradiction in the doctrine of the Trinity which compels Frame to suppose that there are two different senses here. But even here Frame effectually admits that this difference cannot be identified. That “the creedal tradition, too, fails to give a ‘precise’ account of the relations between God’s ‘essence’ and his ‘persons’” (Ibid., p. 69), does not excuse the matter, nor does this undo a contradiction in the doctrine of the Trinity. Adding to the problem is that “we do not have precise definitions of ‘person’ or ‘essence’ or ‘substance’ (Ibid., p. 70), the very concepts used in describing the Trinity and its members. Even in spite of not having “precise definitions” of these terms, Frame does not offer the definitions which he supposedly does have. Definition is the final step in concept-formation. If Frame does not have suitable definitions for his doctrinal assertions, could it be that this is a result of not having a good theory of concepts (as I pointed out here)?

Perhaps Frame would redirect at this point, indicating that no theory of concepts which man is capable of understanding would be sufficient to overcome the difficulty here. Indeed, Frame himself admits the assault which the doctrine of the Trinity poses on reason: “there is a point at which our reason must admit its weakness and simply bow before God’s majesty” (Ibid.). So now the problem is not with the doctrine, but with reason. But the method of reason is logic, the art of non-contradictory identification. So if the weakness is with reason, then this weakness must also infect logic. But the Trinity, since it is the nature of the Christian god, would have to lie at logic’s foundations if it were in fact the case that logic presupposes the Christian god. How can a system built upon a foundation suddenly fail when it comes to understanding that foundation?

John Frame concludes:

On the basis of Scripture, we can say that God’s nature and revelation are noncontradictory. That is a “good and necessary consequence” drawn from the truth and faithfulness of God. But Scripture does not promise that we will always be able to demonstrate the consistency of biblical teaching, apart from the general consideration of God’s truth and faithfulness. We may not always be able to show how two concepts can logically coexist. There may well be times when our inability to specify exhaustively the precise senses of terms we use will result in unresolved apparent contradictions. But why not? We walk by faith, not by sight. (Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, pp. 70-71)

Frame’s first statement here – that it is “on the basis of Scripture” that the doctrine of the Trinity can be affirmed as non-contradictory – is misleading. It is not “on the basis of Scripture,” but on the basis of the assumption that “Scripture” is infallibly true that believers make such affirmations. When it comes to determining whether or not the doctrine of the Trinity conforms to the law of identity, we are given excuses, equivocations, vague definitions (if even that), a tendency to treat key terms interchangeably, etc. Sadly, however, in spite of the Christian’s protest against the charge of contradiction in the case of the Trinity, there actually is a contradiction here. On the one hand, we are told that each of the three members of the Trinity is a unique, distinct person. But then we’re told that each of these persons is “equal to God” (where earlier “God” consisted of thee distinct persons) and is “the same as the others” (so they really aren’t unique or distinct from one another).

In fact, what we have in the doctrine of the Trinity, as it has been described in the foregoing sources, is a three-fold contradiction. Expressed in terms of the law of identity, the doctrine of the Trinity reduces to the following formulation:

A is both A (itself) and non-A (more than itself)

This formulation of course is self-contradictory.

When applied to the different members of the Trinity, we then have the following:

A) God is both (i) God the Father (itself) and (ii) the Godhead (more than itself)
B) God is both (i) God the Son (itself) and (ii) the Godhead (more than itself)
C) ) God is both (i) God the Holy Spirit (itself) and (ii) the Godhead (more than itself)

Why?

Because:

God the father is both God the father and more than God the father – i.e., also God the son and God the Holy Ghost. In other words, God the father is both itself and more than itself at the same time. It is both A and more than A.

The same is the case for the other two persons of the trinity.

In conclusion, the doctrine of the Trinity is hopelessly contradictory.

So the presuppositionalist claim that the Christian god is the basis of logic, or that logic reflects the character of the Christian god, apparently rests on ignoring what Christian theology teaches about its own god. For it would have us believe that logic is based on three distinct instances of something being both itself and more than itself at the same time (i.e., for all eternity, since the trinity is supposed to be eternal).

Van Til tells us that “God must always remain mysterious to man” (The Defense of the Faith, p. 14). If this same god is supposed to be the foundation of logic, this would mean that the foundation of logic “must always be mysterious to man.” But why should one accept this? We understand what logic is, what its purpose is, why man needs it, etc. Logic itself is not mysterious in any way. Why should we think its foundation “must always remain mysterious to man”?

I submit, then, that the presuppositionalist claim that logic presupposes the existence of the Christian god, cannot be true and in fact should be rejected completely.

by Dawson Bethrick

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Monday, July 06, 2009

Does Logic Presuppose the Christian God? Part II: Reasons Why Logic Cannot Presuppose the Christian God, #3: Contradictions in Christ

Ayn Rand broadly understood logic as ““the art of non-contradictory identification” (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 36), and in my view she was correct. She saw logic as “the fundamental concept of method, the one on which all others depend” (Ibid.). Since the goal of logical thinking is knowledge, and knowledge is understood here as an integrated sum of non-contradictory identifications, the view that logic is the fundamental standard of non-contradictory identification is incontestable.

Given this fact about logic, then, Christianity can have nothing to do with its foundations. As I have argued elsewhere, a core essential of Christianity involves worship of a contradiction as such. The worship of Jesus Christ is entirely non-negotiable in Christianity, and early Christian creeds, which orthodox Christianity takes seriously and affirms as validly describing its defining tenets, identify Jesus Christ as both “wholly God” and “wholly man.” As I point out in the above-linked paper, this results in a series of internal contradictions (I list no less than 20) which constitute Christianity’s object of worship. It should not be difficult to see why, since the qualities distinguishing the Christian god are explicitly negated in the nature of man. Christianity teaches that its god is supernatural, infinite, eternal, divine, immutable, non-physical, etc., while man is clearly not supernatural, not infinite, not eternal, not divine, not immutable, not non-physical, etc. But according to what Christianity teaches, Jesus Christ is an entity which is both of each of these contraries crammed together into a single unit. In each respect, then, Jesus is essentially both A and non-A, in the same respect (since the “wholly man” part explicitly negates the attributes of the “wholly God” part) and at the same time (i.e., always). Jesus is literally a walking contradiction, and Christians worship this.

Attempts to defend against this discovery by arguing that this is actually a case of “A and B” instead of “A and non-A,” ignore the fact that the paired qualities which results from designating Jesus Christ as both “wholly God” and “wholly man” are made up of diametrically opposed contradictories, e.g., supernatural and non-supernatural. This is not analogous to, say, a park bench which is composed of various materials, such as wood and steel. It is rather a case of affirming that an entity consists wholly of a set of qualities along with their negations. So the “A and B” defense fails, and the contradictions informing the person of Jesus Christ remain.

Perhaps the “best” response to this criticism that I have seen, at least in terms of entertainment value, is Paul Manata’s peanut butter sandwich analogy. In his comments to this blog, Manata presented the following mock dialogue to make his last-ditch defense against my points:

Bithrack [sic] said: "the idea that a single entity can have two entities."

Christian dummy thinks: "is a sandwich an entity?"

everyone answers: "yes"

Christian dummy asks: "can a sandwich have penut butter and jelly, i.e., two entites?"

everyone answers: "yes"

christian dummy says: "so a single entiity (sandwich) ca have two entities (penutbutter and jelly)?

atheist dummy: "no fair! leave me alone and stop making the wisdom of this world (me) turn into foolishness before God! [SIC]

The problem with this defense should be obvious: a sandwich made of peanut butter and jelly is not “wholly” peanut butter and “wholly” jelly; it’s not even “wholly” peanut butter and “wholly” jelly and “wholly” bread. The same will be the case with any conglomerate entity composed of two or more ingredients: the resulting entity is not going to be wholly one substance and wholly another substance, both of which make up the entity in question. A chair consisting of a wooden seat and back and metal legs is not “wholly” wood and “wholly” metal. On the contrary, it is part wood and part metal. Similarly with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich: it is part peanut butter, part jelly, and part bread (make mine whole wheat, I’m on a diet!). So as an attempt to salvage the doctrine of the incarnation of Jesus Christ from my criticism with analogies of everyday things, seems to be doomed by virtue of missing some very significant and relevant facts.

With defenses like this proposed to salvage Christianity from such clear-cut defeaters, it appears that it will be impossible for Christians to overcome the inherent contradictions inherent to their object of worship. For purposes of the present inquiry, the question becomes:

How can a worldview consisting of worship of something that is inherently self-contradictory on multiple levels have anything to do with the foundations of logic, whose task is to safeguard non-contradictory identification?

The presuppositionalist literature does not seem to anticipate this objection, nor does it explain how something that is inherently self-contradictory can serve as the foundation of the laws of logic. Indeed, such points are totally ignored and kept out of sight so that they do not impede the credulity of confessionally invested believers who swallow the whole bottle of Christianity’s toxic pills. Consequently, since the conclusion that Christianity involves the enshrinement of self-contradiction is rationally undeniable, the claim that Christianity alone can “account for” logic falls apart in a most embarrassing manner.

by Dawson Bethrick

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Saturday, July 04, 2009

Does Logic Presuppose the Christian God? Part II: Reasons Why Logic Cannot Presuppose the Christian God, #2: Christianity’s Lack of Concept Theory

The lack of a good understanding of what concepts are, how they are formed, and how they relate to reality, is one of the chief reasons why someone might be seduced into supposing that logic can be “accounted for” by appealing to a “supernatural mind.” When apologists affirm that there is some fundamental connection between logic and the nature of their god, they are in effect announcing that they do not have a conceptual understanding of logic by treating it as something other than the function of a human mind. As pointed out above, logic is the method of acquiring knowledge suited to a mind which is neither omniscient nor infallible; an omniscient and infallible mind would have no use for logical inference, because it wouldn’t need to infer its knowledge in the first place. Essentially, logic is required for learning and confirming what one has learned, and an omniscient and infallible being cannot learn in the first place (for learning presupposes prior ignorance of what has been learned). Because the presuppositionalist case for logic presupposing the Christian god fails to take these points into account, it is evident that lurking behind the presuppositionalist defense is a fundamental disregard for the general nature of the human mind as the proper precondition for the laws of logic.


Logic’s Conceptual Nature

Since man’s sum of knowledge is something he develops throughout the course of his life as he learns about reality and confirms or disconfirms things which he has learned, his knowledge has a hierarchical structure. Since his knowledge takes the form of conceptual integration, the general nature of this structure has certain requisite features, such as its base in perceptual awareness. Our initial concepts (including of course axiomatic concepts) are formed on the basis of perceptual input. Concepts so formed can of course be integrated into higher abstractions, but only subsequently, after these initial, “lower-level” concepts have been formed, for they would first need to exist in order to serve as units for further integration. Man’s higher-level knowledge, then, rests on the validity of his lower-level knowledge, which in turn stands on the perceptual level of his awareness. Peikoff’s own illustrative description of the hierarchical nature of knowledge is worth noting:

Human knowledge is not like a village of squat bungalows, with every room huddling down against the earth’s surface. Rather, it is like a city of towering skyscrapers, with the uppermost story of each building resting on the lower ones, and they on the still lower, until one reaches the foundation where the builder started. The foundation supports the whole structure by virtue of being in contact with solid ground. (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 130)

The nature of logic is intimately bound to the hierarchical structure of man’s knowledge, in that it has a two-fold purpose: integration and reduction. Logic provides the mechanics, as it were, for developing knowledge, for building the “city of towering skyscrapers” which characterizes the sum of his knowledge. It does this by guiding inferences from previously validated knowledge, by teaching man to draw conclusions from data he has gathered from reality. Logic also works in the reverse, allowing a thinker to retrace his integrations back down to their fundamentals, to discover the premises which lead to the conclusions he holds, to reduce what he has learned to its basis in perceptual awareness. All of this indicates how inherently suited logic is for the non-omniscient, fallible mind which man possesses.

But not only is logic’s purpose bound to developing man’s conceptual hierarchy, its very principles are conceptual in nature and so is the suitability of their application to this task. The law of identity, for instance, would not be available to man for this purpose if he could not first form the concept ‘identity’. The concept ‘identity’ is an axiomatic concept. And as a concept, it is open-ended, which means it can apply to anything which exists. The standard equational formulation of the law of identity, i.e., A is A, is so useful because the term A can represent anything which exists. For example, a rock is a rock, a river is a river, goats are goats, financial institutions are financial institutions. This open-endedness of the concept ‘identity’ and all other concepts (including those which inform logical principles) is its universality, which is a product of the abstraction process known as measurement-omission. Briefly, this is the process by which the specifics of the objects which we perceive are treated as variables which must exist, but can exist in any quantity, thus allowing those objects to be integrated with other objects which are similar in some relevant way to form a concept. The concept ‘man’, for instance, includes men who are 5’2” tall as well as those who are 6’4” tall, those who weigh 120 lbs as well as those who weigh 320 lbs, those with light skin as well as those who have dark skin, those who are twenty-two years old as well as those who are sixty-two years old, those who live today as well as those who lived two millennia ago, etc. The open-endedness or universality of conceptual knowledge is specific to man’s consciousness because he is neither omniscient nor infallible. It is this understanding of universality which lead Ayn Rand to discover the mathematical nature of conceptual knowledge:

The basic principle of concept-formation (which states that omitted measurements must exist in some quantity, but may exist in any quantity) is the equivalent of the basic principle of algebra, which states that algebraic symbols must be given some value, but may be given any value. In this sense and respect, perceptual awareness is arithmetic, but conceptual awareness is the algebra of cognition… The relationship of concepts to their constituent particulars is the same as the relationship of algebraic symbols to numbers. In the equation 2a = a + a, any number may be substituted for the symbol “a” without affecting the truth of the equation. For instance: 2 X 5 = 5 + 5, or 2 X 5,000,000 = 5,000,000 + 5,000,000. In the same manner, by the same psychoepistemological method, a concept is used as an algebraic symbol that stands for any of the arithmetical sequence of units it subsumes. (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 18)

Given this algebraic understanding of a concept’s universality, it does not take a great leap to understand how this applies to logical form. Since the terms in an argument can themselves be concepts, an argument can be made for any conclusion one seeks to establish (even conclusions which are not true). This is easiest to see in the case of a simple syllogism. Take for instance the standard Socrates syllogism:

Premise: All men are mortal.
Premise: Socrates is a man.
Conclusion: Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

The argument here begins with a general statement about an entire class of units, namely “all men.” Notice the use of concepts here, the key concepts being ‘men’ and ‘mortal’. In the second premise a specific unit’s inclusion in the concept ‘men’ is affirmed, which allows the inference stated in the conclusion that, because an attribute applies to all units in the concept ‘men’, it therefore applies to a specified unit which is a member of that class. All this is made possible by man’s ability to conceptualize.

But the conceptual aspects of logical syllogism do not stop there. Notice that the very form of the argument can be used to argue other conclusions by replacing its terms with other terms. For instance:

Premise: All cats are mammals.
Premise: Morris is a cat.
Conclusion: Therefore, Morris is a mammal.

Here we have the same argument form being used to argue for a different conclusion. This is possible because the form of the argument itself has a conceptual aspect to it. To use Rand’s language above: an argument must have some terms, but it can have any terms. The argument can be about men, cats, mammals, paper clips, moral injunctions, planetary movement, or logical form itself. An argument can even be made for conclusions which are not true. For instance:

Premise: All accounts of UFO sightings are true.
Premise: Marshall Applewhite’s account is an account of a UFO sighting.
Conclusion: Therefore, Marshall Applewhite’s account is true.

Or, consider the following:

Premise: All theistic arguments are sound.
Premise: TAG is a theistic argument.
Conclusion: Therefore, TAG is sound.

Naturally, we could expect even presuppositionalists to reject this argument, since it is unlikely that they themselves would assent to the first premise.

There are, then, various key aspects of logic, including its universality, its two-fold purpose and its suitability to the non-omniscient, fallible nature of man’s mind, which are directly related to its conceptual nature. A good understanding of concepts will bring these points out so that we can recognize them explicitly and understand how they apply to man’s mind in general and logic’s applicability in man’s quest for knowledge. And it is precisely this understanding which seems completely absent from presuppositionalism’s case for associating logic with the Christian god.


Bahnsen’s Mishandling of Universality in Logic

Very often, the “case” for logic having its foundations in the Christian deity takes the form of a false dichotomy, where the pro-Christian side is affirmed with little explanation and the contra-Christian side is denigrated to such a degree that no one would want to affirm it. Greg Bahnsen’s views on the topic are not atypical in this regard:

If the laws of science, the laws of logic, and the laws of morality are not seen as expressions of the unchanging mind of God, then the notion of universal and absolute “laws” or the concept of order in the contingent, changing world of matter makes no sense whatsoever. In what way could anything truly be universal and law-abiding when every event is isolated and random? If universality is supposed to be objective, then there is no justification for holding to it on the basis of man’s limited experience, whereas if universality is subjective (internal to man’s thinking), then it is arbitrarily imposed by man’s mind on his experience without warrant. (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 110n.65.)

Clearly what Bahnsen was missing here was a good understanding of universality, which is an aspect of concepts given their open-endedness, as I explain in my blog Demystifying Universality.

It is important to note that Bahnsen is simply wrong to imply that all facts in the universe are “changing.” There is no reason why a non-Christian philosophy cannot identify certain fundamental facts which in fact do not change. For instance, the fact that the universe exists does not change; if it changed, none of us would be able to worry about these matters in the first place. But other facts in the universe do not change. For instance, the fact that the objects of consciousness exist independent of consciousness does not change. The fact that man needs to breathe in order to live does not change. The fact that an appropriate amount of heat will cause water to boil does not change. The fact that cows have eyes does not change. The fact that paper is made of some substance found in the universe does not change. There are many constants available to us right here in the realm in which we live, since there are so many facts which do not change.

Also, observe how Bahnsen fails to support his initial statement here, namely his claim that “if the laws of science [etc.] are not seen as expressions of the unchanging mind of God, then the notion of universal and absolute ‘laws’… make no sense whatsoever.” Instead of offering an argument to support this claim, he follows it first with a question, and then a universally negative assertion which again is not supported with an argument. Let’s examine these in turn.

Bahnsen asks the question: “In what way could anything truly be universal and law-abiding when every event is isolated and random?” The question is phrased in a manner such that it seems to answer itself. Presumably if “every event is isolated and random,” then nothing could “truly be universal and law-abiding” (save perhaps the supposition that “every event is isolated and random”?). Again, notice how Bahnsen’s point here assumes an either-or scenario: either the Christian god exists, or we’re faced with a “changing world of matter” where “every event is isolated and random.” And even though this dichotomy is not defended by Bahnsen (he simply assumes it), his statements and questions make no sense without it. But as I pointed out above, I see no reason why non-believers would be forced into supposing that the world is ever-changing, and that “every event is isolated and random.” In fact, just to categorize something as an event means that whatever it is that one is so categorizing satisfies certain criteria, such as the fact that it has happened, that it has a causal basis, that it is an event as opposed to something else (like a hairball or chocolate bar, etc.). So the “random” part here (if it is supposed to mean “occurring without cause”) can be rejected here (while the apologist’s insistence on it amounts to deliberate misrepresentation of a rival position). And why suppose that “every event is isolated”? Again, Bahnsen does not say why non-theism necessarily leads to such a view. I certainly don’t think it does. We can recognize connections between events, such as the sun shining on the earth and the temperature rising, a car running out of gas and the need to push it to the nearest gas station, or the rise of the Third Reich and World War II.

But perhaps Bahnsen is trying to say that without the existence of his god, such conceptualized connections could not be made. In such a case, we can rightly ask: What does the “God” part have to do with it? If his response is that his god is needed for universality in cognition, then we can safely put this mistaken notion to rest. This brings us to Bahnsen’s universally negative statement:

If universality is supposed to be objective, then there is no justification for holding to it on the basis of man’s limited experience…

Statements like this (which, given its universally negative nature, are quite difficult to defend) indicate to me that Bahnsen did not have a conceptual understanding of universality. A key give-away here is the implication that “man’s limited experience” would keep him from cognition on a universal scale. But what is the alternative to “limited experience” if not “unlimited experience”? I don’t think there is such a thing, even on theism’s premises. Even if one affirms the existence of an omniscient god, it too would only have “limited experience.” A god’s omniscience wouldn’t change this. Suppose this god is aware of every thing that exists. That might be an enormous number of things, but it would still only be a finite number of things (the redundant expression “finite number” being necessary for purposes of clarification and emphasis). As Luke 12:7 says, “even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” If a god experiences things, it experiences only those things which it experiences, which means: its experience is limited to itself. Since to exist is to be something specific, since A is A, experience is experience, and one’s experience is itself and nothing more than this.

But suppose that the theist explains this to mean that his god is aware of every member belonging to every category, that its direct awareness of things is literally universal. Say for instance that when the history of the earth is all said and done, there will have been exactly one trillion human beings which have lived. The theist of course would claim that his god would have direct awareness of all these individuals (let’s call this “comprehensive awareness”) and that this is most likely what Bahnsen would have had in mind as the alternative to “man’s limited experience.” Fine, let’s say that this is what Bahnsen may have had in mind. But even here it’s clear that it’s alleged experience would still be limited, specifically to those (hypothetical) one trillion human beings, and not “unlimited.”

The presuppositionalist may concede this point but say it gains no significant ground for the non-theist. He may point out that Bahnsen believed that universality presupposed such comprehensive awareness of individuals. But does it? Is it really the case that universality is possible only so long as there’s a mind which does have such comprehensive awareness? If that were the case, and the Christian god is that mind which enjoys such maximal awareness, how does that give man universal categories? It seems that this is where presuppositionalism is destined to fall apart, for it fails to offer a clear account of how man forms universal categories in the first place.

One of the more impressive features of Ayn Rand’s theory of concepts is its illustration of how the human mind can form concepts on the scant basis of only two units. Far from needing the kind of comprehensive awareness mentioned above, the objective theory of defines a concept as “a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated according to a specific characteristic(s) and united by a specific definition” (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 10, emphasis added). Take the concept ‘ball’ for example. On the Objectivist account, a child needs to have awareness of only two specific balls to form a concept integrating them into a mental unit. Say one is a basketball, and the other a ping pong ball. Both have similarity in the fact that they both exist, they are both round, they both roll on the floor, they both bounce, etc. They are also dissimilar in certain ways: the basketball is much larger than the ping pong ball, he can carry the ping pong ball in one hand, but needs two to carry the basketball, the ping pong ball is white and has very little mass while the basketball is orange with black stripes and heavy, etc. The child forms the concept ‘ball’ by integrating these two units by reference to a specific characteristic which they share and omitting specific measurements which distinguish them from one another. This allows him to integrate new units which he’ll discover later, such as tennis balls, baseballs, billiard balls, etc., into the same concept. Because the concept does not specify the quantities in which the omitted measurements must exist, the concept is open-ended such that later-discovered units can be integrated along with these previously observed units without contradiction. It is, roughly, in this way that even a child is capable of forming universal categories. He did not need “comprehensive awareness” of each and every ball in existence in order to do this. In fact, it is because man’s experience is limited, because man is not omniscient, because he does not have “comprehensive awareness,” that universality is both possible and important to him. Universality treats a potential infinity of units as a single whole. It is because man’s awareness is limited that he requires a mode of cognition which allows him to treat a potential infinity as a single unit. Man’s mind can hold only so much in his immediate awareness at any given time, and concepts allow him to economize his cognition. No one knows how many balls exist, have existed and will exist, but this knowledge is not required to form the concept ‘ball’. And if someone did have such knowledge, concepts would be useless to him, since he’d have “comprehensive awareness” of every unit, making the economizing virtues of conceptualized awareness of no value whatsoever. Man’s justification for universality, then, is not Christian god-belief, but the objective theory of concepts. Bahnsen’s notion that a supernatural, omniscient mind is needed to explain or “account for” universality, is a case of missing the point in the grandest scale imaginable.

As for Bahnsen’s understanding of what universality is as it pertains to human knowledge, all that seems important to him is that it’s only available if his god exists. Beyond this it is unclear, especially when he entertains the proposal that “if universality is subjective…, then it is arbitrarily imposed by man’s mind on his experience without warrant.” His parenthetical “(internal to man’s thinking”) is of little help here. Is he denying that universality is an aspect of the conceptual level of cognition? But again, the charge of subjectivism can be answered here by the objective theory of concepts: If universality is the result of an objective process of abstraction on the basis of perceptual input (as the objective theory of concepts teaches), then as an aspect of concepts it is object-bound, i.e., objective rather than subjective. In such a case, universality is not “arbitrarily imposed by man’s mind on his experience,” but an important component of a method of cognition which is consistent with the primacy of existence metaphysics.

The chief point here is that logic is conceptual in nature, which in turn leads to three relevant truths. Because logic is conceptual in nature:

(i) the basis of logic is the facts of the universe as they are grasped by a consciousness which possesses its knowledge in conceptual form (as opposed to something which is only imaginary);
(ii) it is not the case that logic could find its basis in a mind which would not possess its knowledge in conceptual form. (See my blog Would an Omniscient Mind Have Knowledge in Conceptual Form?)
(iii) a good theory of concepts is crucial to a good understanding of the meta-nature of logic.

In regard to this last point, I don’t think you will find any theory of concepts in the bible (let alone a good one), and I would not recommend searching for one in the presuppositionalist literature, either. For this, I refer readers to Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, which presents the Objectivist theory of abstraction.


Impact on Theistic Arguments

It is important to understand how a lack of a good understanding of the nature of concepts can enable bad theistic arguments. The presuppositionalist argument that logic presupposes the Christian god is a case in point. Below we will observe how such an argument might proceed in action.

As we have seen in the foregoing and in my examination of presuppositionalist statements about logic, the overall scheme of arguments for logic presupposing the Christian god generally takes a two-part format: first it is stated that logic poses insurmountable philosophical tangles for the non-believer due to certain positions (usually inserted by apologists into the non-believer’s mouth) which allegedly follow as a necessary result from non-belief; then it is stated that logic finds its basis in the nature of the Christian god given various attributes which it is said to possess, such as its eternality, its immutability, its inability to lie, its absoluteness, etc.

In developing their case, apologists often treat logical principles as mental laws which hold by some mysterious force called “necessity.” The implication here, it is said, is that these “mental laws” (because they are “necessary”) would obtain even if no human beings were around to mentally grasp them. People come and go, live and die, but these “mental laws” continue indefinitely. They’re “eternal” (e.g., they won’t “die” with us) as well as “universal” (they’re true for everyone, everywhere), and thus they are “necessary” (magically binding?). Dominic Tennant, who defends such an argument, takes it up as follows:

…mental laws do imply a mind. By definition, the mental entails a mind; and so universal, necessary mental laws therefore must imply a universal, necessary mental mind. We could otherwise phrase this by saying that such laws must imply an aseitic God. A necessarily existent, noncontingent, underived, and immaterial Mind exists.

At first blush, the argument presented here seems as poignant as it is simple: mental laws require a mind, and since those mental laws are universal and necessary, it follows that they entail the existence of a universal and necessary mind. This universal and necessary mind is “an aseitic God” – i.e., an eternally and necessarily existing supernatural mind.

To be sure, this ointment catches many flies.

The problem is that its seeming poignancy and simplicity are merely a disguise for its disastrous superficiality. Aside from the fact that this argument commits the fallacy of non sequitur (it does not follow that because mental laws are universal and necessary, they “therefore must imply a universal, necessary mental mind”), what’s lacking is a good theory of concepts as well an understanding of objectivity in terms of the subject-object relationship. In fact, it is in both these areas which certain key confusions are exploited by such arguments in order to make their theistic conclusions seem cogent. In regard to objectivity here, briefly, I will point out that the objective theory of truth assumes the metaphysical primacy of existence, for this is the metaphysical position which recognizes that the objects of consciousness exist independent of the intentions of the knowing subject. It is this fundamental truth – that the objects of consciousness exist independent of the subject of consciousness – which underlies statements like “wishing doesn’t make it so.” But already theism is at a grave disadvantage here, since theism and the primacy of existence (i.e., the principle of objectivity) are in fundamental conflict. (In regard to this latter topic, see my several blogs on the topic.)

But the problems for such arguments do not stop there. We have yet to see how a poor understanding of concepts can make arguments such as Tennant’s seem so compelling. To expose this, let’s explore his reasoning a little deeper.

The example of “mental laws” which Tennant cites is the old Socrates syllogism which we saw above:

Premise 1: All men are mortal.
Premise 2: Socrates is a man.
Conclusion: Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

According to Tennant, “We believe that we apprehend this conclusion in view of the two premises, and the relationship we perceive between them.” He insists that the “relationship” which “we perceive” here “is not a physical one.” And even though perception is strictly a physical process (involving external stimuli on the sensory nerves of biological organisms; scientists have been studying perceptual systems for decades), Tennant assures us that the relationship which the premises of the Socrates syllogism have between themselves, is “not a physical one.” Unfortunately, by describing this relationship as “not a physical one,” Tennant fails to identify the nature of this relationship in positive terms. He tells us what it is not, not what it is. And it is here, in the reluctance or inability to identify the nature of such relationships in positive terms, where such arguments find much of their traction among the converted. Simply saying that relationship in question here is “not a physical” one, allows the apologist to characterize it as an “immaterial” relationship (again, note the preference for negative identification here). Apologists typically leave it at that and subsequently insist that “immaterial” anything poses insurmountable problems for non-believers because that the “immaterial” nature of mental relationships cannot be accounted for without pointing to an immaterial and eternally existing being, which just so happens to be the Christian god.

But to his credit, Tennant does at least attempt to develop the matter a little further. He continues, saying that we are “immediately aware” of the relationship between the argument’s premises “through introspection,” and thus “we believe Socrates is mortal because of the premises.” The words “because of” here indicate “a causal relationship between the premises and the conclusion.” So we have here, according to Tennant, a causal relationship between different mental phenomena, which he characterizes as “a real, non-physical relationship between these premises and the conclusion.”

It is at this point that Tennant invokes a composition fallacy to fend off the anticipated objection of the facts that human brains are physical and a necessary precondition for any human mental activity:

None of this denies that our mental states may correlate to physical states in our brains. But we cannot reduce the mental states to these physical states, because we would then remove truth and intentionality completely, since they are non-physical things. Similarly, we cannot say that the mental states are caused by physical states, because then the only real causation would be physical causation while the mental states are just along for the ride, having no actual influence on what happens. But we have just established that mental states do really have causal influence on other mental states. If they don’t, then logical inference does not actually take place, and the relationship between premises and conclusions does not really exist.

Tennant allows that “our mental states may correlate to physical states in our brains,” but he apparently finds the implication that this means “physical states in our brains” are causally preconditional to the mental activity involved in grasping the inference of such arguments objectionable. He explains that the inclination to “reduce the mental states to these physical states” will “remove truth and intentionality completely, since they are non-physical things.” But it’s not clear why this would happen. If the mental activity of our minds does in fact depend on the physical activity of our brains (a proposal which Tennant does not in fact disprove directly), why would certain conceptual properties (e.g., truth) and mental capacities (e.g., intentionality) would be “remove[d]”? The argument here seems to be: since truth and intentionality are “non-physical things” (which, again, only identifies what they are not, not what they are), the “states in our brains” would also have to be “non-physical things” in order to constitute a causal precondition for them. But since the “states in our brains” are physical, the “states in our brains” cannot constitute a causal precondition for our “mental states,” because among these are things like truth and intentionality, which are “non-physical things.” The argument clearly assumes that “physical states” can cause only more “physical states,” and since “mental states” are “non-physical,” they cannot be caused by the “physical states” in our brains. This strikes me as fallacious as saying that metal machinery can produce only metal products, and since paper is not a metal product, metal machinery cannot be used in manufacturing paper products. I see no reason to accept this argument, which seems sufficiently analogous to Tennant’s course of inference here, just as I see no reason to suppose that the human brain does not constitute a causal precondition for human cognition (or “mental states”), and consequently for mental capacities (e.g., intentionality) and conceptual properties (e.g., truth). Indeed, the very fact that our first mode of awareness – namely perception - is a physical activity of biological organisms, suggests that such arguments are mistaken. That our initial means of awareness of objects is a physical activity (involving an organism’s sensory organs and nervous system), indicates that at least some animal consciousness is directly dependent on “physical states” (to use Tennant’s term). And since human cognition is cognition about some object (ultimately involving the objects of one’s perception), the theist defending an argument such as Tennant’s will need to identify the point at which human cognition ceases to depend on the “physical states” of the brain. But it seems that too much vital ground would be conceded at this point, since cognition (“mental states”) is about objects, and we do perceive objects through physical systems. And if we have a theory of abstraction by which we can understand how the human mind forms concepts from its awareness of individual objects which it perceives, then it seems that we have all we need to tackle the theist’s challenges. All of this simply pushes the theist back into a very tight corner.

Tennant says something else which seems incorrect:

we agree that this relationship does exist. What is interesting about it, however, is that, although it entails a mind (because it is a mental relationship), it does not entail our minds. We could none of us exist, and yet we must acknowledge that this mental relationship would still hold.

By “we could none of us exist,” I understand Tennant to mean all human beings, such that: if no human beings ever existed, “this mental relationship would still hold.” If I am correct here, then Tennant has lost sight of the very argument which he himself raised as an example, namely the Socrates syllogism. This argument affirms that “all men are mortal” and requires that Socrates was a man. But if no men ever existed, then how could one claim that there is some binding relationship between the premises of this argument? The bond connecting the argument’s premises is their truth and their distributed terms. But if their terms have no objective reference (which would be the case if men never existed), then there would be no basis for calling them true. Thus there would be no “necessary” relationship between these premises to speak of.

All this is not to say that the existence of human beings is necessary for any facts to obtain, where facts are essentially understood as mind-independent data existing in reality and available for us to discover. But even here, there is a context to keep in mind. What I understand Tennant to be essentially saying is that at least some truths, such as the laws of logic, are timeless, and that they are objective. Since these truths apply for everyone, they do not entail or presuppose any specific human mind’s existence, but since they are “mental” they necessarily presuppose the existence of some mind. Why it cannot be the human mind as such (an abstraction which includes every human mind which exists, has existed and will exist) is not explained. But it seems to me that the laws of logic do necessarily presuppose the human mind, for reasons which I presented in my previous blog, specifically that logic as a method which guides cognition is suited to minds which are neither omniscient nor infallible, which possess knowledge in conceptual form, and whose process of acquiring and validating knowledge is not automatic. These conditions certainly do not suggest the Christian god.

We can say that the laws of logic are timeless because they are abstract. Remember that concepts are formed by a process of abstraction which allows measurements to exist in any quantity. (This is what Rand essentially meant by “measurement-omission.”) One of the measurements omitted in forming them is temporal measurement. The concept ‘man’ for instance does not stipulate that its units have to exist during some specific date range. On the contrary, it includes all men regardless of when they might exist. Thus the timelessness of the laws of logic is concurrent with their conceptual nature: they apply regardless of when the units informing an argument’s terms might exist.

The objectivity of the laws of logic is a corollary of their dependence on the primacy of existence metaphysics, i.e., the recognition that the objects of consciousness exist independent of consciousness. An apple is what it is, for instance, regardless of whether or not we like how they taste or believe they grow only in Antarctica or are ripe only on Tuesdays, etc. Similarly for the laws of logic: the law of identity is explicitly partnered with the primacy of existence because it states that a thing is itself independent of consciousness. This is the first law of logic, and its objectivity is explicitly involved in what it affirms.

But the problem with supposing that the laws of logic, given their timelessness (or eternality) and their objectivity, entails the existence of a “universal, necessary mental mind,” is that the issue of metaphysical primacy has been overlooked and the distinction between subject and object effectively blurred. This “universal, necessary mental mind” (e.g., the Christian god) is also said to be supernatural, omnipotent, omniscient, infallible, and able to create the objects of its own awareness. Such descriptions reverse the proper relationship between a consciousness and its objects, thus affirming the opposite of the primacy of existence, and in the case of logic essentially announces that it would be a mind which could have no use for logic (given its omniscience and infallibility). Where the original point was purportedly to account for the objectivity of the laws of logic, the apologist was lead by his faulty premises to a conclusion which denies any objectivity whatsoever.

Consider the role of objectivity when it is applied to human cognition. When we make statements (a conscious action), we make statements about things (i.e., objects of consciousness). Now it should be easy to see that in order to make statements about objects, those objects would have to exist already, before we could make those statements. (The same principle applies in the case of statements about things we imagine, without implying that the imaginary is real, for even in such cases we would have to imagine the things we make statements about before we could make any statements about them.) So on an objective account, the objects would have to exist independent of any statements made about them. So why wouldn’t we apply this principle consistently, and recognize that the objects of our consciousness would have to exist independent of our consciousness of them in order to make statements about them? We see this in the case of the Socrates syllogism: Socrates and the class of men to which the argument says he belongs, exist independent of the individual apprehending the truth of the argument’s premises and conclusion. If the truth of such premises derive their truth from the objects which their terms subsume (which is a conceptual operation), then a conclusion wholly opposite to the one which Tennant sought to draw is consistently implied: no eternal, universal mind is needed for these truths to obtain, since it is not any specific mind which gives them their truth status, but the objects which are subsumed by their terms and the process by which those terms are formed. This is consistent with the primacy of existence metaphysics – i.e., the primacy of the object in the subject-object relationship, and it is wholly suited to man’s specific type of consciousness, a consciousness capable of the conceptual level of cognition.

In sum, the laws of logic are conceptual in nature, and this very fact, for the many reasons which I have presented here, indicates on several levels that their basis could not be the god which Christians describe in their religious beliefs.

by Dawson Bethrick

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