Friday, June 25, 2010

The Biological Nature of Consciousness

In May of this year, I got into a discussion with a Christian who posts under the moniker “danielj” over on Choosing Hats regarding the biological nature of consciousness. Throughout the discussion danielj, a Christian, was trying to find ways to challenge my view that consciousness is biological, but he never was able to demonstrate that consciousness is something other than biological.

In this post, I have pasted my contributions to this discussion, since numerous issues were raised that are of significance to the proper understanding of the nature of consciousness. Since the nature of consciousness is of central concern to my anti-apologetic critique of the Christian worldview, this post will make available in one source many ideas pertaining to the nature of consciousness which inform a significant concern in the overall critique of theistic worldviews.

It all started with a question posed by danielj on 10 May 2010:
Does consciousness not exist?
My response to this was:
Yes, consciousness does exist. You need to be conscious just in order for you to ask the question. None of the points which I have raised is incompatible with this fact.
However, consciousness does *not* hold metaphysical primacy.
danielj apparently did not understand what the issue of metaphysical primacy is, for he then asked:
If consciousness exists how is it that it is exempted from the primacy extended to every other existing thing?
When did consciousness start existing if not with every other existing thing?
My responses to danielj thus follow:
Consciousness exists only in relationship to some object. Consciousness is consciousness of something, of some object. Hence we have the subject-object relationship. To affirm the primacy of consciousness is to affirm the primacy of the subject in the subject-object relationship, which is to affirm subjectivism.
There is no evidence which suggests that consciousness has always existed with every other existing thing. Consciousness is an attribute only of a certain class of existents, namely living organisms. Rocks, for instance, do not possess consciousness. Planets do not possess consciousness, nor do asteroids, quasars, protons, etc.
If you think consciousness holds metaphysical primacy, can you explain why, and point to some evidence which supports your view (especially without committing the fallacy of the stolen concept)?
Danielj wrote: “How exactly did things without any sort of proto consciousness (rocks, protons, etc.) combine to form consciousness and where does this ‘consciousness’ reside?”
Generally speaking, they did this by means of causality. What is the specific process? That is a scientific question. I am not a scientist, and I do not profess to know. I don’t see what relevance it has to the issue. Regardless of how some biological organisms developed the attribute of consciousness, consciousness is still consciousness of something and therefore still exists in a relationship with an object (or many objects, as the case may be). Do you suppose there’s such a thing as consciousness of nothing? How could it qualify as consciousness?
Danielj: “It must reside outside the bounds of ‘existence’ since the things that human beings are made of have no consciousness in and of themselves.”
The notion that something “reside[s] outside the bounds of existence” is incoherent. This is saying that something exists but yet is not included in the sum total of what exists. Also, that consciousness “must reside outside the bounds of ‘existence’” does not follow from the fact that the various parts which make up human beings are not themselves conscious. My spleen, for instance, does not have its own consciousness, and neither does my elbow. These are attributes of me as an entity, just as consciousness is. Consciousness, mind you, is not an entity in itself, but an attribute of some entity (namely biological organisms).
Danielj wrote: “How does the combination of biology and causality produce consciousness?”
The question essentially answers itself: The process by which an organism develops consciousness of objects is both biological and causal. You have flat out denied that consciousness develops, but did not provide an argument for this. When a fetus develops in the womb, it develops from a fertilized egg. At the stage of a fertilized egg, there is no heartbeat, but eventually it develops a heart. At the stage of a fertilized egg, it has no sensory organs, so it has no means of perceiving anything, and thus has no capacity for consciousness. But it does develop these organs, and these organs are what give it the capacity to perceive, to be conscious of objects. Why would you think that a biological organism does not develop consciousness? Do you think that an organism was conscious before it existed?
Danielj: “If consciousness is indeed reducible to biology…”
I don’t think consciousness “reduces” to biology; to say this would imply that consciousness is non-biological. Consciousness *is* biological. How could it be otherwise? All organisms which possess consciousness have in common the fact that they have sensory organs which give the organism the capacity to be conscious of objects.
Danielj: “and it is merely a scientific question then we are just plants.”
Human beings are not plants. But both human beings and plants are biological organisms. I don’t think there are any plants that possess the attribute of consciousness. But many species in the animal kingdom do.
Danielj: “Concept formation is photosynthesis and free will is an illusion.”
Incorrect. Concept-formation is not photosynthesis. Anyone who understands both would know this. Concept-formation is volitional and requires a consciousness capable of selectively isolating specific objects and integrating them into mental units. This is not the task of photosynthesis.
Danielj: “You’ve denied proto consciousness and proto intentionality as well."
Hmmm… I don’t recall doing so. Where do you think I “denied proto consciousness and proto intentionality”?
Danielj: “There is no 1/2 consciousness or self-consciousness by your own method.”
Specifically, what do you know of my method? What makes you suppose that there’s no self-consciousness “by my own method”? With higher organisms (such as human beings), consciousness can be a secondary object – i.e., consciousness of itself. We are exhibiting this ability right here in our discussion. What makes you think my position denies this? Or do you find it expedient to put words into my mouth for some reason?
Danielj: “It does not follow from the intentionality of consciousness that existence has metaphysical primacy no matter how many times and in how many ways you repeat it.”
The primacy of existence is not a conclusion of prior inference. It does not “follow” from some prior set of affirmations. Rather, it is implicit in any affirmation (which is part of the reason why theism is self-contradictory at the fundamental level.) I’ve written much on axioms. Apparently you’ve not examined what I’ve said, or you did not read it very carefully.
Danielj: “Consciousness is not a sufficient condition for existence? So what?”
Existence is not borne on conditions. Those conditions would have to exist. To say that certain conditions had to be met for existence to exist, would be to say that those conditions had to exist in order for existence to exist. The idea commits the fallacy of the stolen concept.
Danielj: “Existence isn’t a sufficient condition for consciousness either.”
So, you think something other than existence needs to exist in order for consciousness to exist? Please elaborate.
Danielj: “If existence isn’t a sufficient condition for consciousness than [sic] consciousness simply could not have sprung into existence since no thing can ‘begin’ to exist according to your own philosophy.”
Consciousness begins the same way that other types of activity begin. When an organism senses an object, this is an action which begins at a certain point in time. The same for when an organism perceives. The same for when a man thinks. These are all species of a type of action. Consciousness is inherently active.
Danielj: “If you refuse to attribute eternal existence to consciousness you render your own system incoherent,”
How so? What would justify attributing eternal existence to consciousness? I know consciousness only as an attribute of some biological organisms, including but not restricted to man. Where do we find an eternally existing consciousness? Biological organisms procreate and die. Find one that is eternally conscious.
Danielj: “but, if you do attribute it, then you’ve admitted its ‘co-primacy’ at the very least.”
Even if you assume that consciousness is eternal, this would not validate the notion that the subject and object share metaphysical “co-primacy.” I suspect that you do not fully understand the issue of metaphysical primacy. Perhaps you could explain what “co-primacy’ between consciousness and its objects would be like.
Danielj: “Please correct any errors in my thinkin’ here.”
I’ve pointed out quite a few already.
I wrote: “Consciousness, mind you, is not an entity in itself, but an attribute of some entity (namely biological organisms).”
Danielj: “In light of the above – should you let it stand unrefuted – I consider this begging the question.”
How so? How is consciousness not an attribute of the entity which possesses it? Also, what conclusion am I assuming in the premises of any argument that I have presented?
Danielj: “Either consciousness exists or it doesn’t. If it does, than [sic] it has always existed like everything else in existence.”
Can you explain how you think this is supposed to follow?
Danielj: “How is it that only the ‘universe’ is eternal? What exactly do you even mean by ‘existence’ exists if things like biology and consciousness are allowed to simply spring into existence out of non-existence?”
I’ve written on many of these topics on my blog. You might want to check it out as you’ve stumbled quite severely if you think your statements have been representative of my position.
I wrote: “You have flat out denied that consciousness develops, but did not provide an argument for this.”
Danielj responded: “You denied it. There is nothing in between consciousness and unconsciousness so there can be nothing that leads up to consciousness.”
Where did I deny that consciousness develops? Didn’t you read what I wrote?
I wrote: “When a fetus develops in the womb, it develops from a fertilized egg. …. Why would you think that a biological organism does not develop consciousness?”
Danielj responded: “You’re missing the point.”
Which point am I missing? Please be specific, especially if you’re going to level accusations like this.
Danielj asked: “Does consciousness equal sensation like you appear to be saying here?”
Sensation is one form of consciousness. Do you think that sensation is not a form of consciousness?
I wrote: “Consciousness *is* biological.”
Danielj responded: “Then the will is not free.”
What do you mean by “free,” and how does your claim follow from the fact that consciousness is biological? It’s not self-evident.
I asked: “How could it be otherwise?”
Danielj responded: “Well, gee…. Think about that for a second. How could the universe possibly be otherwise? Does ANYBODY here have any theories?”
Do you have any arguments to back up your claims? Or just questions? If you do not think consciousness is biological, what is it? Do you think it’s supernatural? If so, just say so. Let’s see how well you understand the matter. It’s clear that you do not accept the primacy of existence. Why not go all the way?
I wrote: “All organisms which possess consciousness have in common the fact that they have sensory organs which give the organism the capacity to be conscious of objects.”
Danielj asked: “So? How do you know that consciousness follows sensation?”
Sensation is a form of consciousness. If an organism is sensing something, it is conscious of that something in sensory form. It’s not a matter of consciousness “following” sensation.
Danielj asked: “Or are you equating the two?”
Again, sensation is a form of consciousness. So is perception. So is conceptualization. There are many forms of consciousness. This is basic stuff. Ask yourself this, Danielj: Are you conscious of your surroundings? By what means are you conscious of them? In what form are your conscious of them? How are you conscious of them? Do you perceive them? When you are perceiving, are you still unconscious? What is your understanding of consciousness? Get it out in the open. Quit hiding.
Danielj wrote: “Even if it does, it doesn’t mean that is the only possible way that it could.”
What else do you have in mind? Again, please be specific. Inform your point.
Danielj continued: “One does not necessarily follow from the other.”
And as you can see, now that you’re learning a little more about my position (perhaps for the first time), I am not arguing that.
I wrote: “Anyone who understands both would know this. Concept-formation is volitional and requires a consciousness capable of selectively isolating specific objects and integrating them into mental units. This is not the task of photosynthesis.”
Danielj asserted: “If it is simply biology it cannot be volitional.”
Why not? What is your argument for this? What assumptions of yours are driving conclusions like this? I’m biological, and I have a volitional form of consciousness. Why can’t it be biological? Is it just that your conception of biological is so narrow that it arbitrarily excludes volition? Or do you think there’s a legitimate reason for this? If so, please state it.
Danielj asked: “How do the fetus’ organs add up to volition?”
I don’t understand the question. I don’t think I said that “organs *add up* to volition.” The sensory organs are the means by which an organism senses an object. This activity – sensation – is a form of consciousness.
Danielj asked: “How does biology give rise to volition?”
Are you asking for a blow by blow explanation of all the causal activity which allows a consciousness to regulate itself? If so, that’s well beyond the scope of a comments section discussion. You might start with Binswanger’s The Metaphysics of Consciousness at least to clear up some profound misunderstandings about consciousness. Once that’s done, there are other sources available for you to start investigating. But until you’ve corrected some of your more fundamental misunderstandings, you’re not ready for that.
Danielj asked: “Were there ever non-volitional humans?”
I don’t think so, given my definition of man. But on a broader definition, perhaps. But you’re asking about something which written history has not recorded, so this would require a lot of input from the sciences which I do not have at my disposal.
Danielj asserted: “Biology isn’t a sufficient condition for consciousness.”
Got any argument for this? Oh wait, take a look at what you wrote next:
Danielj wrote: “Do you understand this? Biology isn’t a sufficient condition for consciousness. Biology isn’t a sufficient condition for consciousness. Let it sink in…”
I guess you’re a student of the Sunday School understanding of reality: repeat a claim long enough until it “sinks in” and you *believe* it. You’re showing us your preferred method. No wonder you have so many misunderstandings.
Since you know so much about the necessary conditions for consciousness, can you identify them for us? If biology is not a sufficient condition for consciousness, can you tell us what is? Watch the stolen concepts!
I asked: “Specifically, what do you know of my method? What makes you suppose that there’s no self-consciousness ‘by my own method’?”
Danielj responded: “From what I read on your blog and in objectivist ‘literature’.”
Where did anything I write or that you found in the Objectivist literature deny man’s capacity for self-consciousness? That is the view you attributed to me. Where did you read this? Please, show me. I want to see.
Danielj wrote: “From henceforth, I shall refrain from attributing anything to you. It was hasty and wrong of me and bordering on a violation of the 9th.”
You’re showing that you’re at least a little teachable. But seriously, where did I deny man’s capacity for self-consciousness? If you did not read this in something that I wrote or that some other Objectivist wrote, why did you attribute this position to me? If you’re having difficulty being honest in our discussion, please say so. I see no reason to continue on with someone who will not be honest.
I wrote: “With higher organisms (such as human beings), consciousness can be a secondary object – i.e., consciousness of itself.”
Danielj: “Now you are defining into existence ‘secondary’ objects.”
You seem to have a real difficulty understanding my position. Do you understand what I mean by “secondary object” in the context of what I stated? I’m not “defining into existence ‘secondary’ objects.” My point is that consciousness must first be conscious of objects other than itself in order for it to be possible for consciousness to have itself as an object. This again is basic Objectivist 101 stuff. I don’t think you’ve read much Objectivist literature. Perhaps you’ve read criticisms of Objectivism; I have too: it’s not a good way to learn about what Objectivism really teaches.
Danielj asked: “Do these secondary objects exist?”
Consciousness exists. In the context of what I stated, consciousness would be the secondary object – an object of itself, consciousness turned inward on itself, just as we do when we contemplate how we became aware of something. But first we had to become aware of that something before we could contemplate how we became aware of it. There’s a hierarchical sequence of activity here. I didn’t realize that you needed such rudimentary information about what Objectivism teaches. What specifically have you read on Objectivism? (You intimated above that you’ve read Objectivist literature. Is that true?)
Danielj asked: “Is consciousness an object?”
It can be. Just as it is in our discussion. Do you understand what Objectivism means by ‘object’? Or, are you again trying to interpret Objectivism on your own unstated assumptions? What will that profit you?
I wrote: “We are exhibiting this ability right here in our discussion. What makes you think my position denies this? Or do you find it expedient to put words into my mouth for some reason?”
Danielj wrote: “Of course putting words into your mouth would be expedient (and I’ve got some very choice words for you) and funny, but I’ll refrain.”
Now that you’ve been caught red-handed, you’ve decided to refrain from this bad habit. Let’s see how long you can control it.
I wrote: “The primacy of existence is not a conclusion of prior inference.”
Danielj wrote: “It isn’t a valid conclusion”
It’s not a conclusion to begin with, Danielj. Do you not understand such basic issues?
Danielj wrote: “and is certainly, at the very most, a trivial ‘axiom’ as I pointed out in my last comment.”
Do you not recognize that you’re assuming the primacy of existence right here in this statement? Do you understand what the primacy of existence is?
Danielj wrote: “It is a stolen concept.”
Actually, the very charge that the primacy of existence is a stolen concept itself commits the fallacy of the stolen concept.
I suspect that you really don’t understand what you’re talking about, otherwise you’d not make such blunders.
Danielj had written: “If you refuse to attribute eternal existence to consciousness you render your own system incoherent,”
I asked: “How so?”
Danielj responded: “Then it wouldn’t be an object, wouldn’t fall under the ‘existence exists’ axiom and it wouldn’t exist.”
Are you assuming that something must be eternal to be an object? I’m not sure how else to understand where you’re coming from here. It’s certainly not what Objectivism teaches. So again I suspect you’ve not really ever read any Objectivist literature, at least on the present topic.
I wrote: “Even if you assume that consciousness is eternal, this would not validate the notion that the subject and object share metaphysical ‘co-primacy’. I suspect that you do not fully understand the issue of metaphysical primacy. Perhaps you could explain what ‘co-primacy’ between consciousness and its objects would be like.”
Danielj wrote: “Consciousness either exists or it doesn’t.”
It does.
Danielj wrote: “If it exists then it is just as ‘prime’ as existence. If it isn’t an object than it doesn’t exist.”
Danielj, you clearly do not understand the issue of metaphysical primacy. It’s important for you to recognize this now before you go on making such blunders like this.
Danielj wrote: “Consciousness is not a sufficient condition for existence and neither is existence a sufficient condition for consciousness, therefore, they are co-prime.”
Again, you’re not addressing metaphysical primacy here. None of this is. The issue of metaphysical primacy pertains to the proper orientation between a subject and its objects in the subject-object relationship. What you’re talking about here has nothing to do with this. You’re not even in the ball park, let alone on the playing field.
I asked: “How is consciousness not an attribute of the entity which possesses it?”
Danielj asked: “What kind of attribute is it?”
A kind which belongs to the entity which possesses it. Consciousness is its own type of attribute.
Danielj wrote: “I already brought this up and you chose not to address it.”
I’ve addressed everything you’ve stated that seem to bear on the topic at hand. Much of what you have stated suggests very strongly that you’re unfamiliar with even the basic tenets of Objectivism on the topic at hand. It’s unclear even what your position is, if it were laid out explicitly. For instance, when asked how consciousness is not an attribute of the entity which possesses it, you fail to deliver any kind of reasoning for your view, and instead just ask a question (“What kind of attribute is it?”).
Danielj wrote: “It isn’t observable in anyway [sic]”
Do you mean that consciousness is not observable “in *any* way”? Why do you suppose this? I’m observing my own consciousness introspectively. If I were not able to do this, I’d never be able to form concepts of consciousness. But clearly I have.
Danielj wrote: “and does not exist by that standard.”
Well, that just blew your position out of the water.
Danielj asked: “Does it smell funny? Is it orange? Is it hot?”
You seem to be assuming that only concepts which pertain to the level of sensation should be allowed to apply. But why? Are you stuck at that level of consciousness? Have you not explored your own consciousness beyond the level of sensations? I almost feel sorry for you.
Danielj : “Either consciousness exists or it doesn’t. If it does, than [sic] it has always existed like everything else in existence.”
I asked: “Can you explain how you think this is supposed to follow?”
Danielj wrote: “Firstly, please don’t pull that [sic] crap unless it is truly essential to your argument.”
I’ll do whatever the hell I want, even if you disapprove. Don’t get sore at me if you don’t understand the difference between “then” and “than.”
Danielj wrote: “It follows from your axiom Dawson. Existence exists. The universe exists and has always existed. Nothing can ‘begin’ to exist, come into existence, or ‘develop’. Maybe you need to better explain what you mean by existence exists instead of just sweeping your arms around in a grand gesture?”
I’ve explained this in numerous places on my blog. It’s in the Objectivist literature that you said you’ve read. And still you make some very boneheaded blunders. I thought you said you had read up on this stuff. Your statements clearly show otherwise.
I wrote: “I’ve written on many of these topics on my blog. You might want to check it out as you’ve stumbled quite severely if you think your statements have been representative of my position.”
Danielj wrote: “Well, maybe they aren’t then. I certainly don’t wanna misrepresent you and I’m sorry if I did.”
What is that you thought you were doing? What is that you want to do, if not misrepresent my position? I would accept your apology if you showed some genuine interest in avoiding this bad habit. But I’ve not seen it yet. You haven’t got any of the basics down, and flail away at straw men.
Danielj: “I’d prefer to watch objectivists struggle for dear life over at the Maverick Philosphers page.”
Yes, I remember that guy. He had a lot of trouble getting the basics of Objectivism correct. See for instance here: http://katholon.com/Vallicella.htm
You’ll see that even Vallicella is prone to misrepresenting Objectivism.
Danielj: “I don’t have any time to waste on your blog.”
You’re like a lot of theists. Suddenly you’re out of time when it comes to interacting with a position that poses a challenge to their theism.
Next?
I asked: “Where did I deny that consciousness develops? Didn’t you read what I wrote?”
Danielj responded: “What are the necessary elements of consciousness Dawson?”
Notice that Danielj does not show where I allegedly deny that consciousness develops. He said that I denied “proto consciousness,” but anyone who examines the record will see that I did not do this. It’s not even been discussed beyond his broaching of the notion.
As for the necessary elements of consciousness, I would list the following as bare minimums:
- To be conscious, an organism needs some means by which it acquires awareness of objects, e.g., sensory organs, a nervous system, a brain, etc.
- Consciousness requires an object to be conscious of (the notion of “consciousness of nothing” is a non-starter)
- Consciousness requires a purpose, e.g., as a means of survival for the organism possessing it.
Danielj asked: “Do you, or do you not agree that biology is not sufficient for consciousness?”
It’s not entirely clear to me what exactly this question is asking. Since consciousness is a biological phenomenon, an organism must have certain biological structures in order for it to be conscious. But not all biological organisms have these structures. So saying “biology is sufficient for consciousness” is somewhat broad and may be misunderstood. But if the biological organism has certain structures which give it consciousness of objects, then its biology is clearly sufficient in such cases.
I wrote: “Where did I deny that consciousness develops? Didn’t you read what I wrote?”
Danielj responded: “You didn’t explicitly deny it.”
No, I didn’t. I didn’t implicitly deny it either. My points about a fetus developing the organs needed for consciousness should clearly indicate that consciousness does develop, just as do heartbeat, respiration, circulation, etc. Consciousness is a biological function, just as these other functions are biological functions. Show us a non-biological entity which has consciousness (and actually exists). I am unaware of any.
Danielj wrote: “You equated sensation with it, then, you proceed to declare sensation a type of consciousness.”
My points have all along been consistent with the view that sensation is a type of consciousness.
Danielj wrote: “I believe that you do it implicitly and unintentionally.”
I asked you to show me where I denied a position, not what you happen to believe. At any rate, I hope you understand now.
I asked: “Do you think that sensation is not a form of consciousness?”
Danielj wrote: “No. I believe sensation is a part of and not a form of consciousness.”
For developed human beings, sensation is definitely part of our conscious experience. But this does not constitute a point of evidence against the recognition that sensation is a form of consciousness. Many organisms have not reached the perceptual level of consciousness, and have only sensation as their means of acquiring consciousness of objects. On Danielj’s view, these organisms are apparently not conscious. But this is arbitrary.
I asked: “What do you mean by “free,” and how does your claim follow from the fact that consciousness is biological? It’s not self-evident.”
Danielj responded: “I mean that biology is not sufficient for volition (or, freedom) which means that biology is not sufficient for consciousness.”
Notice that Danielj does not address my question. Instead, he simply asserts that “biology is not sufficient for volition,” without argument, perhaps because he “believes” that “biology is not sufficient for consciousness,” again a position for which he has provided no argument at all. I’m guessing that’s because he has a faith to defend.
Danielj continued: “I don’t think consciousness is biology. I’m accusing you of that belief which I believe to be an absurd belief.”
Either you do not understand what you read, or you are simply careless. I stated very clearly that consciousness is biological, not biology proper. Biology includes many other things, such as musculature, circulation, respiration, etc. So it’s unclear what you’re calling “an absurd belief.” Besides, on theistic grounds, what could possibly be “absurd”? You must be borrowing from my worldview. That would account for your clumsy use of the concept.
I asked: “Do you have any arguments to back up your claims? Or just questions?”
Danielj responded: “You know the arguments. You’ve proved you are capable of transcendental argumentation.”
I was specifically asking for you to provide some sort of argument (something more substantial than merely your belief or unsupported assertion) for the view that *if* consciousness is biological, “then the will is not free.” I’ve asked you to define your term “free,” which you failed to do, and I asked you to provide an argument for the view you have affirmed. But you produce no argument. Are you stalling so that you can think of one?
I wrote: “If you do not think consciousness is biological, what is it?”
Danielj responded: “It is a God given soul that supervenes on biology, or something. I don’t know exactly.”
Your god is imaginary, Danielj. If you choose to be honest to yourself one day, you will recognize this. I realize that it’s difficult right now.
I wrote: “It’s clear that you do not accept the primacy of existence. Why not go all the way?”
danielj stated: "You’re a genius! I’ve already tipped my hand in a wildly gesticulatory manner. I don’t accept the unequaled primacy of existence but I don’t go all the way on a first date Dawson.”
Again, I find I need to ask this: do you know what the primacy of existence means? To say that the primacy of existence is not true is in fact to assume its truth. Do you understand why? I’ve explained this from a variety of perspectives in a variety of contexts on my blog.
I wrote: “Sensation is a form of consciousness.”
Danielj asked: “How do you know that?”
By means of reason.
I wrote: “It’s not a matter of consciousness ‘following’ sensation.”
Danielj wrote: “Then it is a matter of consciousness following biology, which, as I’ve already tried to explain, is a dog that doesn’t hunt because biology isn’t a sufficient condition for consciousness.”
Your “explanation” has so far consisted simply of your unsupported denials. Do you think that dog hunts?
I wrote: “Again, sensation is a form of consciousness. So is perception. So is conceptualization.”
Danielj responded: “So one could sense without perceiving or conceptualizing?”
Yes. Many organisms have not reached the perceptual level of consciousness (and therefore not reached the conceptual level of consciousness as well). Moreover, many organisms have reached the perceptual level of consciousness, but have not achieved the ability to conceptualize.
Danielj wrote: “Conceptualize without seeing or perceiving?”
Human beings who have been blind from birth have been able to conceptualize without seeing, but they had to perceive in some form in order to conceptualize. Rand’s study of Helen Keller is remarkable on this topic.
Danielj wrote: “It seems to me that they all ‘add up’ to consciousness.”
You’re assuming strictly human consciousness. Human consciousness is not representative of the type of consciousness which all organisms possess. All biological organisms which possess consciousness have at least the level of sensations; many have the ability to perceive objects qua objects; so far as we can firmly establish, only human beings have achieved the conceptual level of consciousness. But all three levels are types of consciousness. Sensation is the most primitive species of consciousness; perception is more primitive than conceptual consciousness. Perceptual consciousness would not be possible without sensations, and conceptual consciousness would not be possible without perceptual consciousness.
I wrote: “There are many forms of consciousness.”
Danielj asked: “What else besides those three?”
When you get to the perceptual level, there is memory. Dogs, which operate on the perceptual level of consciousness, can remember how to get back to their owners homes, for instance. When you get to the conceptual level of consciousness, in addition to memory there is something called imagination. Many worldviews fail to equip their adherents to distinguish between reality and imagination properly.
I asked: “Are you assuming that something must be eternal to be an object?”
Danielj responded: “No.”
Then I’m having difficulty understanding what you stated.
Danielj asked: “Are do you assume that existence must be eternal for objects to be temporal?”
No. Did you think I was?
Danielj asserted: “If it is simply biology it cannot be volitional.”
I asked: “Why not? What is your argument for this? What assumptions of yours are driving conclusions like this? I’m biological, and I have a volitional form of consciousness. Why can’t it be biological? Is it just that your conception of biological is so narrow that it arbitrarily excludes volition? Or do you think there’s a legitimate reason for this? If so, please state it.”
Danielj wrote: “Biology is not sufficient for consciousness. Do you deny this?”
See above.
Danielj wrote: “If you do then I would suggest to you that plants are sentient and conscious and that alone serves as a reductio of your entire worldview.”
Again, see above.
Danielj wrote: “If you don’t then I would suggest to you that consciousness is biology in addition to something else.”
No, organisms which possess consciousness are still biological organisms. There’s no “in addition” here.
I wrote: “You might start with Binswanger’s The Metaphysics of Consciousness”
Danielj wrote: “I’ll check it out.”
You will?
Danielj wrote: “I was thoroughly disappointed with your last recommendation to me (or perhaps it was recommended by somebody who frequents your blog), Piekoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.”
That’s a great book!
I asked: “Where did anything I write or that you found in the Objectivist literature deny man’s capacity for self-consciousness? That is the view you attributed to me. Where did you read this? Please, show me. I want to see.”
Danielj wrote: “Let’s get off this whole train. I was simply affirming in my own way that you (and all objectivists) deny the ‘primacy of consciousness’ as you call it. It was unimportant and isn’t truly germane.”
So, are you taking back your claim that I deny man’s capacity for self-consciousness?
I wrote: “My point is that consciousness must first be conscious of objects other than itself in order for it to be possible for consciousness to have itself as an object.”
Danielj wrote: “Please define object.”
For the purposes of the topic of our conversation, an object is any thing (be it an entity, an attribute, an action, a relationship, etc.) of which one is conscious, whether by means of sensation, perception or conceptualization.
Danielj asked: “Do believe in proto consciousness of any kind?”
It depends on what “proto consciousness” refers to. This has not been explained.
Danielj wrote: “Do you believe in proto consciousness now?”
Again, it depends on what it is taken to refer to. At this point it is just as undefined as when you first introduced it. Do you ever explain your terms?
Danielj wrote: “Strange, since you are an objectivist, that you didn’t start with two here.”
Why do you find that strange? I was not listing them in any particular order. All three are necessary elements.
Danielj asked: “So consciousness is biology plus an object (which would reduce to existence in my opinion) plus a purpose?”
Purpose is concurrent with biology, Danielj. Non-living things are not inherently purposive.
Danielj wrote: “That is still just biology Dawson.”
Yep. As I said: consciousness is biological. I’ve asked for you to name one non-biological thing which actually exists and possesses consciousness. You’ve not produced it.
Danielj wrote: “You’ve also introduced the superfluous notion of ‘purpose’ as well.”
You asked me to identify the criteria necessary for consciousness. How is purpose superfluous? Purpose is concurrent with biology because goal-orientation is inherently biological. Living organisms pursue goals; this is part of their living condition. It is not superfluous in any way. Non-living things do not pursue goals.
Danielj wrote: “Purpose isn’t an object and it does not exist. It is a convenient, ad-hoc invention of yours.”
You’re speaking autobiographically here, showing us how little you understand about purpose. Purpose refers to a condition which is present in biology.
Danielj wrote: “The extremely simple question: Is biology alone a sufficient condition for consciousness?
And I addressed this. Let me spell it out for you: if an organism possesses consciousness, then clearly its biology is a sufficient condition for consciousness. Try to understand that there’s a context here.
I wrote: “But not all biological organisms have these structures. So saying “biology is sufficient for consciousness” is somewhat broad and may be misunderstood.”
Danielj wrote: “That is because it isn’t a sufficient condition for consciousness.”
Again, you’re misleading yourself. We can only address the question on a case by case basis, taking into account the particulars of an organism’s biology (since that’s what the question is asking about). A plant for instance lacks the necessary biological structures for sensation. Thus, its biology is insufficient for consciousness. A dog, however, does have the biological structures which give it the ability to perceive. Thus its biology clearly is sufficient for perception. You’re arbitrarily looking for a one-size-fits-all rule which ignores the context of various situations found in nature.
It’s like asking: “Is biology sufficient for flight?” Well, some organisms’ biology is sufficient for flight, while others are not. To salvage any hope for objective meaning to your question, it should be revised. For instance, *which* organism’s biology is sufficient for consciousness? Answer: those organisms which possess consciousness. Show me an organism which possesses consciousness and yet whose biology is insufficient for consciousness. If you can’t do this, then my position on the matter remains unchallenged.
I wrote: “But if the biological organism has certain structures which give it consciousness of objects, then its biology is clearly sufficient in such cases.”
Danielj responded: “That just does not follow from the simple fact that it is not sufficient in other cases.”
Again, you’re looking for something completely arbitrary here. Why wouldn’t we take into account the particulars of each case, from species to species, in considering the question? Each organism has its own biological identity. Why arbitrarily ignore this fact?
I wrote: “For developed human beings, sensation is definitely part of our conscious experience. But this does not constitute a point of evidence against the recognition that sensation is a form of consciousness. Many organisms have not reached the perceptual level of consciousness, and have only sensation as their means of acquiring consciousness of objects. On Danielj’s view, these organisms are apparently not conscious. But this is arbitrary.”
Danielj wrote: “So, sensation isn’t a sufficient condition for perception or concept-formation? Sensation, in addition to what, is sufficient for perception?”
There is a profound distinction between sensation and perception, just as there is a profound distinction between perception and conceptualization. A minimum requirement for perception is the ability to integrate sensations into a single unit, giving an entity awareness of entities qua entities. This ability is biological, but not all organisms have this. A minimum requirement for conceptualization is the ability to integrate percepts into open-ended unities by a process of abstraction. This ability is biological, but not all organisms have this.
I asked: “So, are you taking back your claim that I deny man’s capacity for self-consciousness?”
Danielj responded: “No, because what I ultimately meant was that you deny, what you would call, the primacy of consciousness.”
Oh, of course I deny the primacy of existence. Performatively, you do too. Only you don’t realize it yet.
But if you’re equating self-consciousness with the primacy of consciousness, or somehow think these are one and the same, or suppose that denying the primacy of consciousness entails or is tantamount a denial of self-consciousness, then clearly you’re confused on the meaning of at least one of these concepts. From what I’ve seen, it’s very possible that you’re confused on both.
I asked: “No. Did you think I was?”
Danielj wrote: “You don’t believe that existence exists and has done so eternally?”
Of course, existence is eternal. Time presupposes existence.
But that is not what you were asking. You asked: “Are do you assume that existence must be eternal for objects to be temporal?” And in response to this question, I answered no, because I don’t assume that existence must be eternal (in order) for objects to be temporal.
I wrote: “the notion of 'consciousness of nothing' is a non-starter."
Danielj asked: “I’m not sure I agree with this either. Isn’t ‘nothing’ a concept? Isn’t ‘things that don’t exist’ a concept as well?”
You’re confusing yourself. I was not stating that consciousness *of the concept ‘nothing’* is a non-starter. Rather, my point was that the notion of a consciousness without an object to be conscious of is a non-starter. It’s a contradiction in terms. You wouldn’t say that an organism is conscious, and then say “Well, it’s not conscious of anything.” If it’s not conscious of anything (i.e., no objects), how can one say it’s conscious?
I wrote: “Purpose is concurrent with biology, Danielj. Non-living things are not inherently purposive.”
Danielj asked: “Purpose, like purposeful? Like volitional?”
Not all purpose is volitional. In fact, statistically speaking, very little is volitional. For instance, your heart beats for a purpose, but it is not regulated by volition. A plant’s roots pull water and nutrients from the ground for a purpose, but this action is not volitionally initiated.
I wrote: “And I addressed this. Let me spell it out for you: if an organism possesses consciousness, then clearly its biology is a sufficient condition for consciousness. Try to understand that there’s a context here.”
Danielj asked: “You’ll now admit that consciousness reduces to biology?”
I’ve addressed this already. My position has not changed. Scroll up and read again if you did not catch it the first time.
I wrote: “For instance, your heart beats for a purpose, but it is not regulated by volition.”
Danielj asked: “What purpose is that? To pump blood? For what purpose is the heart pumping blood? Are you admitting final causes here?”
I thought you said you had read Objectivist literature. You don’t seem familiar with Objectivism at all.
“…admitting final causes…”? What do you mean “admitting”? With rhetoric like this, you make it sound like you think I’m making some kind of concession here. But if you were familiar with Objectivism, you wouldn’t do this (unless you simply insisted on being dishonest).
According to Objectivism, life is an end in itself. The organism’s actions are purposive in that they serve to meet the goal of living life.
Danielj wrote: “If human beings are purely and entirely circumscribed by their biology,”
I’m not sure what you mean by “purely and entirely circumscribed by their biology.” You make it sound as though human beings were some kind of alien substance encased in meat, implying that they are really something other than biological. If you do not think human beings are biological organisms, would you state this explicitly for the record? You don’t have to explain why – I already know that you embrace the primacy of consciousness.
Danielj wrote: “I fail to see how you aren’t just a run-o-the-mill materialist.”
Yes, there is much that you fail to see, Danielj. I submit that this is because you ascribe to a worldview which systemically stifles your understanding of reality.
by Dawson Bethrick

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Was I Ever a Presuppositionalist Myself?

I tend not to write about myself or my life on my blog, since I prefer to keep my posts focused on ideas, and also because I doubt anyone would find aspects of my personal life particularly interesting. So I naturally tend to keep my autobiographical writings private.

But I’ll make an exception in this case to respond to a question I recently received by a visitor to my blog (see here).

Jay asked:
When you were a professing Christian, were you involved with presuppositionalism?
The answer is: Not at all.

When I was a professing Christian (and believe me, I was quite terrible at it), I had never heard of presuppositionalism. (There was also no internet at the time.) The sect to which I belonged would have condemned presuppositionalism as haughty men’s wisdom, as an extravagant form of vanity to be shunned for the sake of preserving one’s salvation, and as an overt attempt to lean upon one’s own understanding as opposed to “trusting the Lord” (cf. Prov. 3:5). The sect to which I belonged was heavy into street evangelism, but so far as I could tell it did not indulge in constructing and/or defending arguments for the existence of any god.

Apologetics as it is known in print and on the net was, from what I could tell, a non-existent part of the Christian program with these people. The Christian god’s existence was taken for granted, just as it is in the bible. You don’t find arguments for the existence of the Christian god in the bible, so the Christians I knew saw such argumentation as folly. The bible didn’t model theistic apologetics, so as practitioners of Christianity the sect I was associated with did not take up the task. Rather, preaching at people, telling them that they were damned if they did not repent and “confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus” (cf. Rom. 10:9), insisting that this could be their last chance before perishing in sin to accept the grace of salvation made possible by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, these were the “tools” of witnessing that were emphasized in the sect that suckered me.

According to these believers, the whole idea of trying to prove the existence of the Christian god by means of argumentation would be entirely counter to what they would consider “the fruits” of genuine faith. Their view was more, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” They would often rephrase it to say, “God said it, that settles it,” to remove any implication that one’s belief had anything to with “settling it.”

So, instead of arguments which seek to validate belief in a god, the preferred method was simply to presume that such belief was unquestionably true and scoff at the idea that such belief needed to be validated by means of men’s thinking. If anyone questioned the existence of the Christian god, they were dismissed as being infected with devils, as under the spell of Satan, and the only remedy was prayer rather than argument. We were compelled by our pastor and other church authorities to “Let go, and let God.” Shame and psychological sanctions rather than ten-gallon words and syllogisms, were the preferred tools of their trade. The net affect was that, once the underlying premises were accepted, one was positively terrified of even considering the question, “Does God exist?” To consider this question could only imply that it was a question worth considering, and such a values statement was intolerably disobedient. A servant does not question the existence of the master he seeks to faithfully serve.

So there were no arguments to be found, especially the kind which presuppositionalists claim to have. A mind which can prove its own verdicts is a mind which is empowered by its own hard-won content. But such a situation is anathema to the mindset demanded of the Christian by the Christian devotional program. A mind which can prove its own verdicts is a mind which has confidence in its own inner workings. But this amounts only in confidence in self, and if anything could be considered the property of the enemy with any consistency among these believers, it was “the self.” That was the meaning behind “Let go, and let God”: to allow God to work in one’s life, you had to get out of God’s way. To be a good believer, one had to get his self out of the way, to “deny himself” as Mt. 16:24 instructs, and subordinate his affections, desires, values, judgments, and every move of cognitive muscle he makes, to the being he fears in the realm of his imagination.

I remember one occasion quite vividly, when the pastor explicitly denounced the very notion of self-esteem. And to be consistent with the demands of his devotional program, the pastor was right to do this. For self-esteem is incompatible with the mindset expected of the believer by the devotional program. Such denunciations were no accident. No one in the congregation was allowed to have any self-esteem, and following an inference successfully to its conclusion is a form of success, and as such it is at enmity with the carefully managed dismantling of the human mind which the devotional program of Christianity executes on converts.

The fear here is that the believer might hinge his beliefs on an argument, which could only mean that his own understanding, rather than “trust in the Lord” was the bedrock of his faith, and faith and understanding are entirely opposed to one another. Since the mindset required of the believer by the devotional program of Christianity is one of complete submission, the habit of relying on one’s own understanding needs to be broken indefinitely. This is why various forms of pressure are used to manipulate converts in such sects as the one I was a part of nearly 20 years ago.

This requires that the witness pretend that he is speaking for the god in question. Attempted manipulations of prospective proselytes are executed in the form of statements given on behalf of the ruling consciousness, both in terms of expectation and affection for the would-be convert. For instance, the witness would say to the man on the street a mixture of “God wants you to…” and “God wants for you…” formulae delivered against the backdrop of the illusion of divine omniscience: “God knows your situation…” “God knows why you have a broken heart…” “God knows why you’re troubled…” “God has the solution…”

Such formulae put the witness in a position of authority while simultaneously letting him off the hook: he implies that he knows the things which his words touch on (which, if believed, is powerfully invasive), while conveying that he is just a messenger, detached from it all and merely sent as a servant (which is powerfully palliative, since it purports to provide a sympathetic peer). The goal here is to build in the imagination of the would-be convert the fantasy that a supernatural being is concerned and cares for him, that the creator of the universe and ruler of reality has taken an interest in him, for no stated reason, and that all he needs to do is respond positively to the overtures made manifest by the witness’s efforts to convey the message from beyond the universe.

There’s no use of argument in any of this, because there’s no inferring going on. It’s not intellectual, it is strictly anti-intellectual. That’s the real ground roots Christianity that takes the bible seriously as a guide to one’s worldview. The Apostle Paul wasn’t sitting there bickering with people over who could best account for logic, or which worldview could provide a rational basis for universality, or how numbers could have meaning in a “material only universe.” Paul was not debating people on things like how one could make sense of “invariant abstract entities,” provide a sound basis for assuming nature is uniform, or which worldview best comports with objective norms of morality. These were not issues that Paul ever takes up in his letters. From what we can put together from the New Testament, Paul simply preached and grew his churches. And he did so with the skill of a master campaigner, using every conflict as an opportunity to promote his religious agenda. There’s no record of him assembling arguments for the existence of the Christian god, whether cosmological, teleological, or “transcendental.” Paul’s topics were different from this, such as reconciling “the law” as it was understood in the Old Testament with the new covenant of grace, preaching “Christ crucified,” addressing the problem of evil, defining the fruits of discipleship, etc. In each concern, Paul’s case assumes the existence of the Christian god, thereby relieving him from needing to argue for it.

That’s why the presuppositionalists’ appeal to the tales found in Acts 17 as vindication for their apologetic pretenses is itself a pretense: when the story has Paul address the people at the Areopagus, he knew that he didn’t have to present an argument proving the existence of any god. He could tell that the people at the Areopagus had already accepted the notion of a god, and Paul simply sought to fill in the blank on its identity. If the account in Acts is at all accurate (and believers tell us it is, even though they were not there), this was the opportunistic parasitism of Paul on display at its best.

Probably what struck me the most about presuppositionalism when I first encountered it a dozen or so years ago, is its hallmark presumptuousness. Apologists in this camp are essentially programmed to assume that they know in advance what their opponent’s positions on various issues are, and then proceed to tear them down with pre-fabricated refutations which probably even they themselves do not fully understand (if they did, it’s hard to see how they would repeat them while keeping a straight face). They essentially regurgitate whatever they’ve read in apologetics books, and thus have no clue how to handle positions which those books do not specifically address. Objectivism comes into mind here.

The presuppositionalist treatment of the problem of induction is a perfect example of this. Primers on presuppositionalism which model the apologetic attack on induction are geared toward critiquing Hume’s view of induction. But what do these apologists do when Hume’s understanding of induction is not the view of a particular non-believer? Presuppositionalists don’t know what to do in such a case. All atheists are supposed to automatically align themselves with Hume’s views. That’s what the apologetics books imply to the field apologist. Since these books do not actually teach apologists to think critically about the issues which they purport to address, they’re frozen solid against a position which happens to take a critical look at the underlying issues of the matter, such as the conception of causality, the integrating role of concepts, the open-ended nature of universality, etc. The presuppositional apologetic crumbles into mudpies when faced with such a situation.

The presumptuousness that is so characteristic of presuppositional apologetics is an expression of the very arrogance inherent in Christianity that I called out in my previous post. As I started to examine what presuppositionalist authors were saying more deeply, I readily saw how effectually Objectivism answers its assertions. I realized that Objectivism has the kind of arguments that presuppositionalists wish they had but can never handle, given their ignorance of the issue of metaphysical primacy. They are done in by their own blind spots. One needs only to point this out to deflate their petulant presumptuousness.

by Dawson Bethrick

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Friday, June 18, 2010

A Response to David Smart on Arrogance

As some of my readers may already know, David Smart has posted a reply to my blog entry Is Atheism Inherently Arrogant? Smart’s blog can be found here.

Smart begins by announcing to the world his own lethargy as the cause for not usually reading my blog:
Usually I don’t bother paying any attention to The Bahnsen Burner, a blog run by an Atheist named Dawson Bethrick, and it would take less than five minutes at his site for a person to see why. It has almost nothing to do with the actual merits of his arguments and everything to do with the fact that locating and identifying an argument within his landslide argumentum verbosium is just too laborious a task.
I’ve never heard of “argumentum verbosium” before, though coming from a tradition promoted by the likes of Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen, it’s hard to see how Smart could genuinely have any problem with this. But it’s true, my work does require some attention span on the part of my readers. I write because I have something to say, and I have a lot to say about religion and its defenses. Also, I take great pleasure in developing my arguments, leading readers step by step from my initial premises to my grand conclusions. I’m the type who seeks to do the best that he can, and to find my arguments, one needs only to read my writings. But this amounts to too much heavy labor for those who prefer the immediate gratification of soundbites and slogans (like excised bible verses) as opposed to developed argumentation.

In general, we should not be surprised when theistic apologists find that they have no time for in-depth analyses of Christian defenses. After all, theistic apologists are interested in sustaining the pretense that their defenses are unchallengeable. Thus apologists have a built-in motivation to avoid exposing themselves to critiques of apologetic arguments. It’s “just too laborious a task” to unravel the avalanche of hard-hitting points that he may encounter on sites like Incinerating Presuppositionalism. So to play it safe, Smart chooses not to examine my blog entries.

Smart says that he
share[s] the same view as Joshua Whipps over at Choosing Hats: until Bethrick decides to express arguments or criticisms with succinct perspicuity instead of proof-by-verbosity, I simply can’t be bothered to engage his material. It requires more time than I have available.
By “proof-by-verbosity” Smart means
“Proof by verbosity” is a rhetorical sophistry whereby someone publishes a very long-winded and complex argument that overwhelms interlocutors and readers with such a volume of material that the argument sounds plausible, appears to be well-researched, and is so laborious to untangle and check that the argument is allowed to slide by unchallenged.
For a moment there, I thought Smart might have had Bahnsen’s hefty Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis in mind. Weighing in at no less than 733 pages (not including bibliography and indices), Bahnsen’s book contains page after page of repetitious insistence that the Christian god is the necessary precondition of knowledge, logic, morality, science, etc. To find an argument, one must be prepared to do a lot of hunting in this door-stop of a tome.

Frankly, it’s hard not to see Smart’s statement here as mere excuse-making for choosing not to interact with explicit criticisms of presuppositionalism. The impression that Smart apparently desires his readers to walk away with is that it’s somehow my fault that he does not address my critiques. I’m so “very long-winded,” my arguments are so “complex,” my writing so “overwhelms interlocutors and readers” with argument which “sounds plausible” and “appears to be well-researched,” that it’s acceptable to allow my arguments “to slide by unchallenged.”

Smart mentions Joshua Whipps. Like Smart, Whipps likes to publish under a video game moniker, namely “RazorsKiss.” Readers of my blog may remember my nine-part series examining Whipps’ debate with Mitch LeBlanc in which the presuppositional swashbuckler sought to defend the claim that the Christian god is the basis of knowledge (see here). Once I was finished with my analysis of Whipps’ case, I sent him links to my work. To my knowledge, Whipps’ only response was the following statement:
Dawson,
While you are quite impressively verbose – I think that the casual reader, upon examination of your mountains of verbiage inspired by this debate will be singularly unimpressed. In fact, it reminded me most strikingly of exactly what my position was. In any position not grounded in the Triune God of Scripture, logical thought just doesn’t happen properly. (Debate Transcript)
Of course, Whipps would be in error if he’s thinking that my target audience is “the causal reader” – i.e., the type who prefers Stephen King novels, tabloid magazines, comic books and the astrology pages. I would not expect such readers to spend the time reading my work, let alone be “impressed.” Casual readers typically do not go out of their way to read essays. As for an example of logical thought “just happening,” perhaps we’re supposed to find it in Whipps’ own writings. I have yet to find it.

Where Smart is most in error here is in giving his readers the impression (with expressions like “proof by verbosity”) that I use volume of verbiage rather than soundness of argument to establish my verdicts. It is not the case that I do this. Anyone who reads my blog entries should see that I seek to address the issues that occupy my attention thoroughly and comprehensively. I am a natural teacher in this sense: I enjoy taking the time to fully explain my criticisms of Christianity, because I think what I have to say is important. It’s certainly important to me. If it’s not important to someone else, that does not diminish its importance in my hierarchy of values. It may be that Smart is a poor learner, and thus does not appreciate the effort I put forward in defending my verdicts. But many do. I am constantly receiving message in my e-mail from readers thanking me for my work, a product I labor on and publish free of charge. If Smart has better things to do with his time than to read my blog, that’s fine. But this choice does not justify the charge that I seek to overwhelm opponents with “landslide argumentum verbosium” and bury them under a debris field of words.

Smart stated:
The only reason that I am even aware Bethrick had recently tackled my “Arrogance of Atheism” articles is because one of our staff members, Mathew Hamilton, directed me to it. I would have otherwise never known. And so for Hamilton’s sake alone I have reviewed Bethrick’s piece, shouldering the laborious task of locating and identifying his arguments in order to respond to them. I shall not repeat this endeavour (even though Bethrick will probably be unable to resist carving out an entertaining albeit verbose Chewbacca Defense), as this response will suffice to demonstrate that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to the bankruptcy of Atheist objections.
What Smart wants everyone to know is that the Aristophrenium blog has a “staff.” What does a blog need a “staff” for? Are these paid employees? Are they appointed officials? The idea that a blog like Aristophrenium has a “staff” strikes me as utterly pretentious. What do these staffers do? Apparently some of the time they’re out on the prowl, looking out for mentions of Aristophrenium on other blog sites. Smart also wants us to know that he did not come and visit my blog and become aware of my response to him on his own. Instead, he has a staffer who found it and reported it back to him. I guess I’m simply too self-reliant to need a “staff” of fellow contributors. The only “staff” I have is a big stick by the door to keep out the rascals. I haven’t had to use it yet.

Smart also indicates that he thinks his “response will suffice that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to the bankruptcy of Atheist objections.” Clearly he wants his readers to be confident that what Smart has to say in response to me is enough to put a capper on the discussion. It is his choice if he does not choose to pursue the matter. But that allows me to have the last word. Let’s see if he remains true to his promises.

Smart wrote the following paragraph in italics, so I guess he did this because he thought it was something important he wanted to say to me directly:
And no, Bethrick, our staff will not publish your loquacious tomes in the Comments field to this (or any other) article. Comments must be composed with succinct perspicuity. If you want to do a verbal dump, there is always The Bahnsen Burner—where no one has to see it unless they masochistically want to. I will return to ignoring you, although you are free to continue directing traffic here by writing about our articles.
Smart is no doubt referring to his blog’s tight moderation policies governing comments (they want to screen comments in response to their blog entries before allowing them to be published) and earlier attempts of mine to publish comments on Aristophrenium that were censored. This is a common practice on Christian blogs. In spite of their constant calls for debate, debate seems to be the one thing Christian apologists are least prepared for, and their comments policies (among other things) confirm this.

Smart again mentions “succinct perspicuity,” but what are the criteria defining this? They are not laid out in his blog’s comments policies. Perhaps it’s one of those “we’ll let you know” kind of things. That’s fine. I have no interest in stooping to meet arbitrary guidelines (and they are arbitrary until they’re stated). And Smart is correct: I have my own blog, and anyone is free to read or ignore my blogs at their will. I’m sure that Mathew Hamilton, a member of the Aristophrenium “staff,” takes comfort in a fellow staffer insinuating that he has masochistic desires by coming over to my blog and reading one of its entries.

As for directing traffic to Aristophrenium, I’m more than happy to do so. In fact, not only have I made sure to include links to Smart’s blog in my own entries, I’ve also added a permanent link to Aristophrenium from my blog’s main page, on the side bar. Something tells me that this will not be reciprocated. (Smart does not even link back to my article when he discusses it, which doesn’t seem very beneficial to his readers.)


The Straw Man Charge

One of Smart’s more frequently used stock in trade reply to critics is that they are rebutting something other than the argument he has presented. Of course, this accusation presupposes that Smart has presented an argument in the first place.

Smart wrote:
Although Bethrick claims to value the capacity for distinguishing the real world from an imagined one, he nevertheless demonstrates an ironic quixotism in his sophisticated and eloquent attempt at rebutting my piece on the arrogance of Atheism. He takes my argument and builds a straw-filled caricature of it before launching into his rebuttal. For some reason this imagined argument is preferable to the real one; but then if you examine the real argument I presented and compare it to his pretend version, maybe you could see why he made that choice.
I have to admit, I do not recall finding anywhere in Smart’s blog entries (see here and here) where he laid out an argument which concluded “therefore, the Atheist is arrogant.” I did not find a developed inference for this conclusion. In fact, given the titles of his blogs (The Arrogance of Atheism and The (Ongoing) Arrogance of Atheism), Smart seems to be saying that atheism is arrogant, while in his papers he’s implying that the alleged arrogance in question is occasioned by certain actions made by individual atheists. So he seems not to be sure exactly what he wants to say.

Perhaps Smart did not express his argument with “succinct perspicuity,” and thus in attempting to interpret his argument from the under-developed argument that he supposedly did give is prone to resulting in what Smart considers a misrepresentation of his position. Of course, one could safeguard his position against mischaracterization on the part of his opponents by clearly laying out the premises and intended conclusion of the argument he has in mind. But I do not find that Smart has done this.

Also, since it is not clear how I have allegedly misrepresented Smart’s original argument, it is not clear how the points of his against which I reacted are the result of my own imagining and “preferable to the real” argument which Smart seems to think he presented. In presenting Smart’s position, I quoted Smart’s own statements in order to ensure that his position was stated in his own words. If restating Smart’s own words is not sufficient to maintain the integrity of the position he’s arguing for, what would be?

Smart notes that:
It seems the capacity to distinguish the real from the imagined doesn’t necessarily mean the person will prefer the real.
This is true: just because a person can distinguish reality from imagination, it does not always mean that he will. What he needs is a worldview which not only provides an objective basis for distinguishing between the two (and what else could do this but a worldview rooted explicitly and consistently on the primacy of existence?), but also informs a system of values which guides one in choosing the real over the imaginary (such as the Objectivist ethics). Christianity surely does not affirm the primacy of existence as a guiding principle (if theists think I’m wrong here, they could start by pointing to chapter and verse where the bible does this).
Bethrick pretends that the arrogance is found in the Atheist presupposing the truth of his system of thought and expecting the Christian to work within the framework of that system, and then turns to wonder why it is not arrogant when the Christian does the very same thing.
Smart accuses me of pretending here, but where does he quote my own words and show that I am pretending? He doesn’t. That’s because I’m not pretending at all anywhere in my blog. On the contrary, I quoted Smart verbatim, stating his “argument” just as he presented it in his blog entry.

Also, it’s important to note what I really stated, so that the gist of my point is not lost in Smart’s confusion. Smart specifically explained that the “arrogance” of atheism is in play when the atheist “presuppose[s] the truth of his system of thought and expect[s] the Christian to work within the framework of that system,” and then stated that “this criticism applies only to those Atheist responses which deny for the Christian the very principle the Atheist allows for himself.”

It is because Smart says that his criticism “applies *only* to those Atheist responses…” that I inferred him to be saying that his criticism does not apply to Christian responses which do essentially the same thing. The way Smart’s “argument” reads, it’s arrogant when the atheist does this, but not when the Christian does this. Smart has not corrected this by saying something to the effect of, “yeah, it would be arrogant if the Christian did essentially the same thing.” Instead, he simply accuses me of straw-manning his argument, which he did not lay out with “succinct perspicuity.” Indeed, that’s what Smart himself is telling us when quoting his own statements results in misrepresentation.

In response to my point, Smart exclaims:
Of course, that’s not even close to what my argument said.
Perhaps what Smart’s “argument said” and what Smart himself wrote are distinct from one another. I quoted Smart’s very words, which were explicitly exclusionary in nature (“this criticism applies *only* to those Atheist responses…”). If what Smart presented was not his argument, then he must be holding it close to his chest for some reason. I’m reacting to what Smart wrote, whether or not it was his intended argument.

Smart then tried to clarify his argument, perhaps for the record:
The “arrogance of atheism” is manifest by those Atheists who presuppose the truth of their system of thought and expect the Christian to work within the framework of that system, all the while denying for the Christian the inverse thereof because the only presuppositions the Atheist permits in the field of debate are his own. Again, the issue is not about Atheists insisting that theistic claims be supported, but rather how they insist those claims get supported.
But notice that in his blog entry, Smart stated that his “this criticism applies only to those Atheist responses which *deny* for the Christian the very principle the Atheist allows for himself.” But I think I was very clear on this in my original response to Smart: I for one do not deny for the Christian the very principle which I allow for myself. That principle is the recognition of the fact that there is a fundamental distinction between what is real and what is merely imaginary. Indeed, I would expect all adult thinkers to recognize and observe this distinction in their world view. So if the arrogance is occasioned in “denying” for the Christian the very principle which I allow for myself, what principle am I allowing for myself that I’m denying for the Christian? Blank out.

Now Smart says that the “arrogance of atheism” is “manifest by those Atheists who presuppose the truth of that system of thought and expect the Christian to work within the framework of that system,” but this seems to be the reverse of what he had earlier characterized as the essence of the “arrogance of atheism.” Where before an atheist is being arrogant if he denies for the Christian the very principle which he allows for himself (for instance, in my case, the principle which explicitly recognizes that there is a fundamental distinction between the real and the imaginary), now the arrogance is occasioned if I expect the Christian to “work within the framework of that system” which is premised upon this principle. Translated, Smart’s claim seems to be that I’m arrogant for denying the Christian this principle, and also for expecting him to abide by it.

Smart follows this up with the added criterion of having this expectation “while denying for the Christian the inverse thereof because the only presuppositions the Atheist permis in the field of debate are his own.” But if the principle in question is the explicitly recognition that there is a fundamental distinction between the real and the imaginary, as I pointed out in my original response to Smart, what’s the problem? Smart himself stated “both Bethrick and I recognize that some things are real and other things are imaginary,” so if Smart recognizes this distinction, why is it “arrogant” for me to expect him to observe this principle in his theistic defenses? We will find below why Smart’s own handling of this matter is itself entirely inadmissible on the very grounds that there is a fundamental distinction between the real and the imaginary.

Smart continues, stating:
Where the Atheist errs is when he demands that Christians support their view using the presuppositions and epistemological criteria of the Atheist’s world view, an error that is readily apparent if the Atheist gave it a moment’s thought: he should consider trying to support his world view using the presuppositions and epistemological criteria of the Christian world view (e.g., the normative role of Scriptures in both metaphysics and epistemology). “But such a system inherently precludes an atheistic world view,” he might protest. Indeed, and so perhaps the point begins to sink in? We can hope.
While I have heard of Christian atheists, it appears that Smart believes that theism is the only interpretation possible if one builds on “the normative role of Scriptures in both metaphysics and epistemology.” But this misses the essence of the point which I raised. My point was that, since the Christian worldview is ultimately premised on the primacy of consciousness (which I have shown repeatedly in the writings of my blog), the essential principle governing the Christian worldview is certainly more fundamental than the notion that the “Scriptures” have some normative role in metaphysics and epistemology. The notions of “Scriptures” and “normativity” in both metaphysics and epistemology are not irreducible; whatever one’s position on either matter stems from the orientation assumed between subject and object, i.e., the issue of metaphysical primacy. One could not suppose that the Christian bible, for instance, had any valid significance in metaphysics and epistemology if one did not first accept – even if only implicitly – the primacy of consciousness. Likewise, if one accepts and maintains fidelity to the primacy of existence, he would never come to the conclusion that the bible has anything worthwhile to say on either metaphysics or epistemology. Theists accept the primacy of consciousness before they accept the “Scriptures” as their guide in life, both logically and chronologically.


Epistemological Indecency: Presupposing the Imaginary is Real

Smart wrote:
Bethrick himself might object on a slightly different point: “But the Christian’s system of thought allows for an imaginary X as if it were real,” forgetting that X is imaginary only by the presuppositions and criteria he employs!
Smart alleges that I have “forgotten” that “X is imaginary only" on the basis of those “presuppositions and criteria” which I employ. But I haven’t “forgotten” this. I reject this claim. And I reject it because it’s patently not true, as I shall explain.

First notice that Smart does not provide an argument for the supposition underlying his allegation against me, namely that something is imaginary only if certain “presuppositions and criteria” are employed. This is clearly false: if something is imaginary, it is imaginary regardless of what “presuppositions and criteria” one may happen to use. That’s what the primacy of existence tells us: the imaginary does not become real simply because one adopts those “presuppositions and criteria” according to which one believes it is real. If something is imaginary, it’s imaginary whether or not anyone thinks, feels, wishes, worries or presupposes that it is otherwise. One’s conscious attitudes do not have the power to turn the imaginary into reality. The reason why Smart thinks that something is either real or imaginary depending on the “presuppositions and criteria” one employs, is because his worldview systematically blurs the distinction between the real and the imaginary. It accomplishes this by cultivating an image of fear in the mind of the believer that, once it’s taken root, is very difficult to shake. Once its unstated premises are accepted, this fear becomes the believer’s epistemological starting point. As Proverbs 1:7 puts it with the kind of “succinct perspicuity” which Smart himself should admire, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.” An emotional reaction is the foundation of the believer’s knowledge.

Smart’s point here clearly shows that he assumes the primacy of consciousness without realizing it. The primacy of consciousness is so taken for granted that it goes without saying, lurking at the lowest strata of his thought process, well below the radar of his own presuppositional detection skills. Smart takes it as self-evident that one’s beliefs essentially shape reality, that something is either real or imaginary depending on what assumptions lie at the basis of his view of the world. In other words, the contents of one consciousness determine whether or not something is either real or imaginary. There is no objective way to validate what is essentially a subjective premise: the view that reality conforms to one’s conscious intentions, just as it is supposed to do in the case of the Christian god’s desires and commands.

So it should not come as a surprise that Smart does not provide an argument to support his view that “X is imaginary only by the presuppositions and criteria [one] employs.” There is certainly no good argument for supposing this, for a good argument must at minimum cohere with the primacy of existence, the very principle which Smart’s presupposition seeks to thwart.

That Smart takes the primacy of consciousness for granted is evident in his projection that I have “forgotten” to apply it in my analysis. But that’s one of the chief points that I was drawing attention to in my initial reply to Smart: I reject the primacy of consciousness, the ground-level premise of the Christian worldview.

Smart sought to make a clarification:
The issue is not about distinguishing between the real and the imaginary—both Bethrick and I recognize that some things are real and other things are imaginary, after all—but about the criteria employed in making that distinction.
Smart affirms that he distinguishes between the real and the imaginary. I’m sure he does. That’s why I had written:
Theists observe the fundamental distinction between what is real and what they imagine in so many areas of their lives, such as when they get out of bed in the morning, consume breakfast cereal, dress themselves, drive their vehicles to work (if they work), tally their monthly bills, balance their bank accounts, walk across their yard, etc.
The problem is that theists do not observe the distinction between the real and the imaginary consistently, as a matter of principle. For when it comes to their religious fictions, they think that what they can only imagine (e.g., “God”) is real. This is endemic to the theistic worldview. The teachings of the bible, for instance, do not provide believers with any stable guide for distinguishing the real from the imaginary, and in fact never explain what lies at the root of that distinction. In places where imagination is mentioned, the fact that there is a distinction between reality and imagination is certainly assumed (primarily on the part of the reader), but it is never explored or explained, so that the believer does not get a full understanding of this distinction as a fundamental of his worldview. And as I have already noted (see here), there are many good reasons to suppose that Christian god-belief has an imaginative basis.

Unfortunately for their own faith commitments, when believers do affirm that the imaginary is not real, they are in fact borrowing from a non-Christian worldview, one which explicitly recognizes the fact that the imaginary is not real and which contextually supports that understanding by grounding it in the primacy of existence. The bible does not make an issue of this, nor does it make any explicit statements on the issue of metaphysical primacy (the relationship between the subject of consciousness and its objects). Furthermore, if Smart or any other Christian thinks the bible does address this matter, I’d invite them to show us where it does. Above we’ve already seen how implicitly Smart takes the primacy of consciousness for granted in his own rationalizations.

Since Smart raised the issue of “the criteria employed in making that distinction” in his blog Arrogance of Atheism: Dawson Bethrick, one of Smart’s readers who posts under the moniker Tavarish, asked the following question:
How do you decide what is real and what is not?
Smart’s response to this was if anything evasive:
Neither Bethrick’s article nor mine stated the method by which we distinguish fact from fantasy—because that’s simply not relevant to the question at hand. Against his polemic sophistry in stating that he makes such distinctions, I pointed out that Christians do so likewise and then redirected attention back to the question at hand: the arrogance of atheists who shove their beliefs down other people’s throats (e.g., when they fault a Christian for affirming some imaginary X, it is ‘imaginary’ only by the presuppositions and criteria they employ, which their claim merely begs against the Christian).
To date, Smart has not addressed this question. Rather, Smart is more interested in charging “arrogance” against atheists “who shove their beliefs down other people’s throats.” Below I will identify a few reasons for supposing that Christians are far more arrogant than any atheist given the measuring stick that Smart uses in identifying instances of arrogance.

It is also noteworthy that, in his response to Tavarish, Smart re-affirms the view that something is “’imaginary’ only by the presuppositions and criteria” which one happens to employ, not because something actually is imaginary. Smart clearly thinks that whether or not something is imaginary depends on what someone might happen to think, not on whether or not something is in fact imaginary. So the analysis of Smart’s statements that I give above is not mistaken.

In the main entry of his blog, Smart stated:
Under both his view and mine, some things are just not real, while other things plainly are real. How do we decide? There’s the rub—which so many Atheists, like Bethrick here, simply will not grasp.
Smart is apparently saying that I do not grasp how one can distinguish between what is real and what is merely imaginary, but provides no support for this wholly untrue allegation. Either that, or he’s trying to say that I do not appreciate the differences between the Christian worldview and Objectivism on the matter. But I do. In fact, I have made it a centerpiece in my critique of Christianity. I invite Smart to answer the numerous reasons that I give for inferring that the Christian god is imaginary. So far, neither Smart nor any other Christian has addressed these concerns.

Again, notice that Smart gives no indication of the process which Christianity might recommend (if it did recommend one) for distinguishing between the real and the imaginary. No doubt, if called to do so, Christians would appeal to their god. In the context of a debate such as this, this would simply beg the question: it would assume the reality of one of the very things in question. A Muslim could likewise appeal to Allah as providing the guide for distinguishing between what is real and what is imaginary. I could appeal to Blarko, which I know is imaginary. Appealing to some invisible magic being only presents itself as a case in point.

So our curiosity as to how Smart would recommend an individual on the issue of reliably distinguishing between what is real and what is imaginary, remains unquenched.


The Arrogance of Christianity

If shoving one’s beliefs down other people’s throats is a mark of arrogance, which is the very measuring stick that Smart employs in determining whether or not atheists are arrogant, then Christianity takes the Grand Prize here. Atheists do not cram people into auditoria from birth through adulthood every Sunday to preach at them, terrorize them with fantasies of eternal peril, shame them with displays of public humiliation and coerce them by means of a community of surveillance. This is a Christian institution, known as “the church,” and without this instrument of aggressive propagandizing, how would Christianity have survived? Atheists aren’t the ones who stand on street corners shouting out bible verses to passers-by, telling them they’ll be condemned for all eternity if they don’t “submit,” or come to people’s homes and knock on their doors to tell them about the “good news” of a father who stood by while his son was tortured and crucified. I’ve never had an atheist come knocking on my door and tell me that the bible is bunk. Quite the opposite has taken place, and many a bible-thumper have tried this (though they tend to quickly leave after I’ve had a chance to ask a few questions, such as how one call a father “loving” when he stands by while his son is being tortured and crucified).

So if shoving beliefs down other people’s throats is the metric by which Smart measures arrogance, how could he at all be complaining about atheists? Smart may want to consider the words attributed to his own savior in Matthew 7:3:
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
Or is it simply too difficult for Smart to resist ignoring Christianity’s built-in arrogance while straining at the arrogance he projects onto non-believers and their consistency in their non-belief? Believers are encouraged by their worldview to be actively engaged in across-the-board evangelism, seeking new recruits (cf. Mk. 16:15) and ensuring that one’s children grow up in the faith (Pr. 22:6). If that’s not a form of shoving beliefs down people’s throats, I don’t see how Smart could find atheists guilty of arrogance by doing what he finds apologetically inconvenient. In all seriousness, Smart’s charge of arrogance against atheists is analogous to a fleet of oil tankers condemning an inflatable life-preserver for displacing too much water.


The Two-Camps Diversion

It is common for those who find a need to ignore the 800 lb. gorilla in the middle of the room to draw attention to non-essentials, hoping that the big hairy beast isn’t noticed. To ensure that we don’t notice the built-in arrogance of Christianity’s insatiable hunger for converts, Smart puts the spotlight on what in his mind distinguishes two major apologetic methods, a non-essential if there ever were one:
When it comes to Christian apologetics, there are basically two camps: on the one hand is evidentialism, and presuppositionalism on the other. Please notice that neither of these two systems deny the Atheist his presuppositions and epistemological criteria! (To charge either with the arrogance I speak of requires ignoring the facts.)
This of course suggests that arrogance can only be occasioned if one disallows his opponent from using the “presuppositions and epistemological criteria” of his own system. I would suggest that we not accept this assumption quite so readily. This is not even Smart’s own measuring stick. Smart himself attributes arrogance to the practice of shoving one’s beliefs down someone else’s throats.

Moreover, it’s hard to see how one could disallow someone from employing the method of his own system. A Christian apologist may appeal to the bible as “evidence” supporting his claims, and his atheist opponent may cite this as invalid, fallacious or inadequate to the task. But his doing so does not disallow the theist from using his criteria of choice. Nor is it an instance of forcibly “shov[ing] their beliefs down other people’s throats” (as Smart puts it). Again, it seems to fall short of Smart’s own measuring stick.

What is important to note is the fact that, even if the atheist finds fault with the theist’s criteria, this does not prevent the theist from using it. Indeed, how often do Christian apologists continue to rely on the same arguments after they’ve been soundly defeated?

Take for example Christian apologist Chris Bolt. On the issue of induction, I have proven not only that Christianity fails to provide an “account for” inductive generalization, but also that Christianity undermines inductive reasoning while showing how Objectivism provides an objective basis for induction (see here). Bolt has not answered any of my points on this matter, and yet he still continues to claim that Christianity is the only worldview which “accounts for” induction. By showing that his criteria are false and even counter-productive to the task for which they are presented, have I disallowed Bolt from continuing to use those criteria? Obviously not. Bolt can still do what he chooses, even if that means relying on refuted premises. If apologists want debates, and then after having debates in which their arguments have been defeated, they still continue attempting to pass off those arguments as sound arguments, isn’t that at least a little arrogant? They’re essentially telling us by their actions that they’re above the facts, that they’re above reason and logic, that they’re above truth. How is that not arrogant?

Indeed, one could reasonably say that atheists often do precisely what Smart claims his apologetic methods do: invite the believer to employ his criteria in the (rather unchallenging) task of showing that those criteria are self-defeating. The atheist is under no obligation to accept the believer’s criteria; and, as we’ve seen, by not accepting those criteria the atheist is not denying the theist from being able to use them; theists tend to use them again and again, well after they’ve been shown to be untenable.

Moreover, when I’ve engaged believers in debate (those few who have sought to challenge my position), I do not stipulate that they must use my criteria and only my criteria. I simply point out that they are already using my criteria in many areas of their life and that their theistic beliefs and arguments are inconsistent with what they implicitly already know to be true. Typically it is theists who seek to control the debate, setting guidelines and minimum requirements (such as Smart’s “succinct perspicuity”), and often flee debate once it’s underway for unexplained reasons.

As we saw above, the implicit arrogance of theism is built-in, even before one gets to apologetic defenses. The arrogance of theism is rooted in its inherent parasitical infatuation with the unearned, both spiritual and epistemological. The Christian claims to have a knowledge which he has not earned, a salvation which he acknowledges cannot be earned, a divine favor which no one could earn, and a position of superiority which is unearned. It is from this artificial self-inflation that the believer is encouraged to look down on others, endeavoring however selectively to conceal the condescending attitude behind a feigned euphoric calm that is intended to give the impression of a “peace… which passeth all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). Some pull it off better than others. The deep-seated insecurity fostered by a faked sense of self-worth creates in the believer an insatiable need to live in the minds of others, like a shmoo that senses its own character deficiencies and seeks to absorb its content from those closest in proximity. It never works so it never satisfies, while producing the effect of feeding a hunger that can never be sated. And it can never be sated because it is premised on the desire to control others, and there will always be others who are not under one’s control.

t is in apologetics where theists put their arrogance on display, holding in contempt those who dare to defy the imaginary deity which they enshrine in their carefully managed imaginations. The arrogance in this context is expressed in the presumption that merely believing in a deity grants one the privilege of compelling other human beings to submit, and condemning those who do not submit and obey, all the while pretending that the condemnation issues from a supernatural source.

Also, don’t forget that theistic apologists appoint themselves as the authoritative spokesmen for the creator and ruler of the universe. They posture themselves as “knowing the will of God” and enjoying the position of being able to speak for it. What could be more arrogant than this?

Indeed, it seems hard for David Smart to contain his own arrogance. On explaining the meaning of his blog’s name, “Aristophrenium,” Smart makes the following statement (I take it that Smart wrote this statement himself):
The term was coined by Ryft [i.e., David Smart himself] from an archaic word ‘aristophrenia’, which describes the condition of having a superior intellect (Chris Aldrich, The Aldrich Dictionary of Phobias and Other Word Families, p. 236). Ryft coined the term ‘aristophrenium’ to describe an arena where thoughtful and intelligent ideas can be shared and critically engaged, far above the clamor of superficial rhetoric and inane caricatures. (The Aristophrenium’s About page)
Clearly Smart must think he possesses “a superior intellect,” no doubt superior to all the rest of us thinking mortals (otherwise we’d all be believers too, and invited to be part of the “staff” at Aristophrenium).


Smart’s Arbitrary Nitpicking

Smart wrote:
“If I may make a few observations,” Bethrick said, “let me state the following.” It was ironic, then, to notice that what followed did not contain one single observation. Not a single one. He issued a long series of vituperative assertions about the motivations and feelings of the theist, informed by nothing but Bethrick’s own prejudices. He presumes to disclose “the real cause” behind my “choice to accuse an atheist of arrogance,” which he so charitably identifies as “a deep-seated resentment of the atheist’s certainty,” that I envy the Atheist who knows that God is nothing more than “a frightening concoction of the imagination”—and on and on. “The real agenda behind the charge of arrogance is much simpler,” he suspects. “It is to smear and discredit non-believers.” The reader might note that there is not one single observation contained in any of this.
Apparently Smart would prefer to quibble over what constitutes an observation than to explore the issue of how the distinction between the real and the imaginary can be objectively grasped. I think this says a lot, particularly about Smart.

Here is what I stated:
I’ve often suspected that the real cause behind a theist’s choice to accuse an atheist of arrogance stems from a deep-seated resentment of the atheist’s certainty, whether the atheist really is certain or the theist simply imagines that he is. The atheist should bear in mind the fact that he is essentially a spoilsport for the theist, and that his mere existence as an atheist serves as a constant reminder to believers that not everyone on “God’s green earth” has obsequiously surrendered his mind to a frightening concoction of the imagination, and this spawns a sense of private envy in the mind of the believer: he wishes that he had the spiritual courage that it takes to distinguish between the real and the imaginary on a consistent basis and stand up to the arbitrary claims of religion, just as many non-believers do. But he lacks such courage and thus resents those who do.
As confirmation of this analysis, notice how often theists insist that there really are no atheists, that atheism is an impossible alternative to theism, and that, if anything, agnosticism is the rightful category of self-professing atheists. Many have misconstrued agnosticism as essentially equivalent to non-belief. But this is mistaken. Agnosticism is the view that certainty on a given matter is unachievable. It does not have to be in the context of theism, but in the context of theism agnosticism would be the view that no one can be sure whether or not a god exists. An agnostic can be a theist just as he could be an atheist; he could believe that there is a god, or he could disbelieve that there is a god. The agnostic is one who takes issue with a position of certainty on the matter. Such persons tend to be more inclined to succumbing to Pascal’s Wager than to acknowledging the imaginative nature of god-belief. Also, theists who have come to realize that their apologetic arguments intending to prove the existence of their god are faulty and consequently unpersuasive, are more inclined to object to an atheist’s certainty and insist that he’s really an agnostic on the subject.
Note also that the atheist is not someone who claims to have been “chosen” to be included in some group or another by an invisible magic being. A genuine atheist does not presume to be the recipient of favor distributed among men by some supernatural source; he typically understands that he needs to rely on his own wits in life, and seeks to develop them for that very purpose. Thus he values his own wits, and acts to protect them from subterfuge and deceit. Perhaps this is what the theist has in mind when he calls the atheist “arrogant.” The atheist is typically not the one who seeks to pass himself off as numbering among “the chosen” and preferring to characterize everyone else as numbering among “the damned.” Christianity, for instance, holds that there is no greater prize than “God’s grace,” and Christian believers style themselves as recipients of this prize and everyone else as lacking it. Given this aspect of god-belief, the charge of arrogance seems entirely misdirected when leveled against the atheist.
Smart insists that none of what I have presented above qualifies as an observation. But why? Does Smart explain himself? Does Smart provide a definition of what he means by “observation”? Does Smart consider the possibility that what he means by “observation” may be different from what I mean by “observation”? Does Smart produce an argument to support his insistent assertion?

The answer is a big “No!” to each of these questions.

I started off by stating my own suspicions about what motivates Christian behavior. Why can’t I observe my own suspicions? Smart does not say. My suspicions are based on firsthand encounters with Christians I’ve debated with. Why can’t I state what I’ve observed other Christians doing? Smart does not say. I stated that atheists are spoilsports to theists merely by existing qua atheists, a fact that I have observed. Why can’t this be an observation? Smart does not say. I’ve observed many theists reacting quite negatively to my certainty. Why can’t this be an observation? Smart does not say. I have observed many theists claiming that there really are no atheists at all. Why can’t this be an observation? Smart does not say. I noted that those persons who raise objections to a person’s certainty are more likely to endorse Pascal’s Wager than to consider the possibility that god-belief is based on imaginary inputs, a tendency which I have observed. Why can’t this qualify as an observation? Smart does not say. I pointed out that atheists typically do not claim to have been “chosen” to be part of some group by an invisible magic being. I have observed this. Why can’t this be an observation? Smart does not say. I noted that “a genuine atheist does not presume to be the recipient of favor distributed among men by some supernatural force.” I have observed this. Why can’t this be an observation? Smart does not say. I noted that atheists do not typically try to pass themselves off as numbering among “the chosen.” I have observed this. Why can’t this be an observation? Smart does not say. I’ve observed that “Christianity… holds that there is no greater prize than ‘God’s grace’” and that “Christians styles themselves as recipients of this prize and everyone else as lacking it.” Why can’t this be an observation? Smart does not say.

Smart asserts that what I offered instead of observations was nothing other than “a long series of vituperative assertions about the motivations and feelings of the theist, informed by nothing but [my] own prejudices.” But how does Smart know this? Does Smart not know that I have interacted with hundreds of theists, each instance enlarging my awareness of what theists say and do? Does Smart not know that I have had hundreds of acquaintances who profess Christianity as their worldview, each providing inputs to my knowledge of what Christians say and do? Does Smart not know that I myself was once a professing Christian, years ago back in my misguided youth, unaware of rational philosophy, a firsthand experience as a Christian providing ample inputs on what Christians say and do? Does Smart distinguish between “prejudices” and evidence? If so, is he immune to his own prejudices in evaluating what atheists say and do? Smart is the one who is accusing atheists of arrogance, not I. Is he not saying that, in his experience (as opposed to merely what his “prejudices” tell him) that there are atheists who expect Christians to observe their own “presuppositions and criteria” in defending their faith beliefs?

Smart seems to be the perfect useful idiot, a person who willfully falls on the very sword he uses to slash at others, however ineffectually.

by Dawson Bethrick

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