Sunday, April 04, 2010

If Knowledge Then Non-Theism

Presuppositionalists claim that knowledge has a theistic basis, specifically Christian theism. They typically flesh out their case for this position by first taking the ‘justified true belief’ analysis of knowledge for granted, and then posing the question, ‘How do you account for it?’

I have already pointed out some fundamental deficiencies inherent in the ‘justified true belief’ analysis of knowledge here. Presuppositionalism seems unprepared to overcome these faults. I’ve also pointed out on numerous occasions that Christianity has no native theory of concepts (the building blocks of knowledge), and that believers must consequently seek outside their worldview for an understanding of concepts (thus “borrowing” from a non-Christian worldview). Presuppositionalism seems unequipped to overcome this problem as well.

Here is a simple argument which demonstrates succinctly and directly, contrary to what presuppositionalism claims, the non-theistic implications of knowledge. In developing this argument, I set out with a specific goal: Trace knowledge to its philosophical roots, and understand their implications for the question of theism. This argument is thus reductive in nature and consists of the following five steps:
Step 1: If knowledge, then concepts.
Spelled out: Man’s knowledge is conceptual in nature. “A concept is a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated by a process of abstraction and united by a specific definition” (Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto, p. 17). If man is capable of discovering and validating knowledge of the world, if he has any knowledge at all, then the conceptual level of cognition is an undeniable reality, for he acquires and retains that knowledge in the form of concepts. Man acquires knowledge, and he does so in conceptual form. If knowledge, then concepts.
Retortion: Denial of the conceptual level of cognition constitutes a claim to knowledge, making use of the conceptual level of cognition in order to deny it. This would commit the fallacy of the stolen concept. One would need to make use of concepts in order to deny concepts or the conceptual level of human cognition. This would be analogous to using a mathematical equation to prove that mathematical equations do not exist.

Step 2: If concepts, then the objective theory of concepts.
Spelled out: If man is capable of acquiring and retaining knowledge in the form of concepts, then he does this by applying a method of concept-formation. The objective theory of concepts provides a truthful analysis of this method (see Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology).
Counter-proposal: The only alternative to the objective theory of concepts, is some non-objective theory of concepts. Where does one find this non-objective theory of concepts, and what specifically does it teach? What would be its merits, and how could it support an objective understanding of knowledge? These are just some of the questions which would come into play if Step 2 is to be denied.

Step 3: If the objective theory of concepts, then the objective account of metaphysics.
Spelled out: The objective theory of concepts necessarily presupposes the objective account of metaphysics. Only an objective account of metaphysics could support an objective theory of concepts. A non-objective theory of concepts would not arise from the objective account of metaphysics, and a non-objective account of metaphysics could neither give rise to nor support the objective theory of concepts.
Alternative: The only alternative to the objective account of metaphysics, is some non-objective account of metaphysics. Thus to deny the objective account of metaphysics is to endorse some non-objective account of metaphysics. But a non-objective account of metaphysics would undercut any claim to objectivity in knowledge. Thus denying the objective account of metaphysics would lead to an epistemological dead-end.

Step 4: If the objective account of metaphysics, then the primacy of existence.
Spelled out: The core of the objective account of metaphysics is the primacy of existence. This is the recognition of the fact that the objects of awareness exist and are what they are independent of the activity by which the subject is aware of those objects. It is the view that the objects of consciousness hold metaphysical primacy over the subject of consciousness. Hence, objectivity.
Alternative: The only alternative to the primacy of existence, is some expression of the primacy of consciousness. Theism numbers among the many expressions of the primacy of consciousness. Any idea or worldview which assumes the primacy of consciousness can only entail a subjective account of metaphysics.

Step 5: If the primacy of existence, then non-theism.
Spelled out: Since theism posits the existence of a consciousness to which its objects are said to conform, theism assumes the primacy of consciousness and thus constitutes an example of a worldview whose metaphysics is non-objective. Indeed, the metaphysics of theism is subjective in nature. Moreover, to deny the subjective nature of theistic metaphysics, is to deny the power, sovereignty and supremacy of theism’s god. I have already shown how theism is incompatible with the primacy of existence (see for instance here and here). Theists who have attempted to interact with my case have only shown themselves to be at a loss as how to overcome the problems which I have identified.
Challenge: Those who would claim that theism is compatible with the primacy of existence, are welcome to attempt a reconciliation between the two. I submit that any attempt to do so will compromise the one or the other in some fatal manner, such as extinguishing the sovereignty of theism’s god, or by outright repudiating the primacy of existence.
So there you have it. If the presuppositionalist claims to have any knowledge at all – even so-called “mundane” knowledge – his claim to knowledge carries with it the epistemological and metaphysical underpinnings which cannot support his theistic beliefs.

The upshot is that any time a theist affirms his god’s existence as an item of knowledge, he is performatively contradicting his theism. Additionally, any time he attempts to enlist knowledge in assembling an argument intended to prove the existence of his god, he is implicitly undercutting his own case. By making a knowledge claim, he is making use of concepts; by making use of concepts, he is assuming the objective account of metaphysics; by assuming the objective account of metaphysics, he is implicitly granting the primacy of existence; by implicitly granting the primacy of existence, he is implicitly denying the primacy of consciousness, which is the metaphysics to which theism ultimately reduces.

How can the theist overcome these points? He would ultimately have to show that knowledge reduces to a subjective account of metaphysics, to the primacy of consciousness. Thus he could not make use of the objective theory of concepts, and it’s questionable even if he could underwrite his conception of knowledge with any theory of concepts. Thus it should not be a surprise when theists characterize knowledge as a phenomenon consisting primarily of beliefs rather than concepts.

But I am open to considering theistic reaction to the chain of reasoning which I have presented above. I am especially curious to see how Christians would try to tackle it.

Any takers?

by Dawson Bethrick

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