Premise 1: That which is imaginary is not real.
Premise 2: If something is not real, it does not actually exist.
Premise 3: If the god of Christianity is imaginary, then it is not real and therefore does not actually exist.
Premise 4: The god of Christianity is imaginary.
Conclusion: Therefore, the god of Christianity is not real and therefore does not actually exist.
Prayson grants that my argument is formally valid, adding “and thus if premise 1-4 are true, Bethrick would have succeeded in showing that God, as believed by Christians, does not exist.”
But of course, given his allegiance to the Christian worldview, Prayson can be expected not to accept that my argument is sound.
Are all premises true? Is it a sound case? I think not.
Surely I recognize that Christian believers are poised to resist the conclusion that the god they worship is imaginary, regardless of how strong the case for that conclusion may be. After all, Christians have a confessional investment to protect, and central to that confessional investment is the supposition that the god they worship is real rather than merely imaginary, and in the case of more serious Christian believers, virtually everything in their stated worldview is riding on the premise that their god is real as opposed to an invention of the human mind. I grasp this, indeed as a former Christian myself: while I was a practicing believer, I surely did not want to admit that the god I worshiped was imaginary. In that phase of my life I would no doubt resent any suggestion that it was imaginary. So keen was I on the insistence that the god I worshiped was real that I was prone to suppressing any information which suggested otherwise, even to the point of squelching my own honesty on the matter. In fact, it was only when I made the conscious decision to be honest about the facts that I realized that what I was calling “God” was in fact merely a figment of imagination, nothing more.
The imagination can be very powerful indeed. If we allow it, our imagination can have drastic influence over our emotions. This can work negatively or positively in our experience. I can be in my house upstairs late at night with my family, for instance, all tucked into bed and supposed to be sleeping. But I am awoken thinking, perhaps rightly, that I have heard a noise in my house downstairs. As I lie there thinking about what may have produced the sound I think I heard, I can easily start to imagine things. Perhaps it was an animal that caused the noise. Perhaps it was an intruder. Perhaps it was something falling off the wall, like a picture or a wall clock. I can imagine all sorts of things, some benign, some threatening. If I imagine that what I heard poses a threat, if I feed this imagination, I can easily be overcome by fear. Indeed, living here in Thailand, there can be all kinds of real threats that can go bump in the night. A human intruder is unlikely, but it is still possible. A dangerous reptile may be more likely. Indeed, geckos have the run of my house, and yet even though they are harmless, they still make noise and can startle me as they dart out of a dark corner or behind a curtain. So long as it is not a spider or a snake, I should be okay. But then again, there may be threats here that even I am not yet familiar with.
In other contexts, certain things we imagine can be quite encouraging. If, for instance, my wife and I have decided to go out to pizza – a very rare occurrence, but one that would be quite welcome to the usual Asian fare that I am used to consuming on a daily basis here – I can be quite excited, especially if my appetite is aroused. As I begin to look forward anxiously to my pizza dinner, I cannot help but begin to imagine the pizza that I am about to enjoy. We are an hour away from even arriving at the pizza restaurant, and already my mouth is watering for something I know from experience to be wonderfully delicious. I imagine Italian sausage, Canadian bacon, sliced mushrooms, onions and bell peppers, oodles of cheese and marinara sauce, a crisp crust, a perfect blend of herbs and spices, etc. The pizza that I imagine as we come closer and closer to our arrival at the restaurant builds my excitement for my upcoming meal experience. Finally we get to the pizza restaurant and order our pizza, and when it comes I find that the “Italian sausage” is nothing more than a blond hotdog sliced into chunks, the sauce is merely ketchup, and instead of the delicious blend of herbs and spices that I had imagined, the pizza is covered with cut corn. Yes, that is what you can expect when you go to a pizza restaurant in Thailand. They just don’t know how to do things right here when it comes to western food. In spite of the enthusiasm that my imagination propelled through my emotions, reality always draws the final trump, and I’m left let-down.
The point to all this is that our imaginations can be quite active in our daily conscious experience, and it can have a profound impact on our choices and actions given its potential influence over our emotions. So the charge that the Christian god is merely imaginary, then, is not to be taken lightly. Nor is it to be dismissed prematurely as a mere passing fancy of some know-nothing bystander who has nothing of value to offer on the philosophical aspects of god-belief. I have investigated this matter deeply, drawing not only on my knowledge of rational philosophy, but also from my experience as a Christian believer and my interactions with believers.
In regard to the profound impact that imagination can have over our emotions and the choices we make in our lives, I would like to draw the reader’s attention to three relevant points of interest. The first comes from a documentary by John Stossel called “The Power of Belief.” I cited this in my blog Imagine There’s a Heaven
in which I wrote the following (the link I originally gave for the video which I cited no longer appears to work, so I have replaced it with an updated link):
I recall, of all things, a John Stossel special I saw years ago called “The Power of Belief.” In it, Stossel explored the suggestibility of individuals disposed to confusing the imaginary with reality. I was delighted to find that portions of this documentary are accessible on YouTube (see here
In the initial installment of the program (at the link provided), you will see an experiment conducted on
several groups of children and a large enclosed cardboard box. The kids play in the room with the large
cardboard box and eventually the kids inquire on the contents of the box. The children are told that it is
empty and invited to look in the box to see for themselves that it is in fact empty. After the box is closed
back up, the children are told a story about a hungry fox which lives inside the box. They understand that they’re supposed to pretend that there’s a fox in the box, and they play along with the story. Then the adult excuses herself from the room for a few moments, leaving the children in the room by themselves. After a short while, their curiosity about the box grows and they start to wonder if in fact there’s something in the box that they had earlier seen to be empty.
Soon the children begin to think they are hearing the fox in the box. Then they worry about it. Some get
closer to the box to listen, but are afraid to open it. Some of the children in the experiment were confident that there was no fox in the box, but “most kids,” says Stossel,
aren’t sure. This is what happens in test after test. Almost every child begins to believe that the animal they helped create, might be real. Even when the researcher explains again that there was no fox in the box, most children believe it was there… Sometimes when we form beliefs, those beliefs persist against logic or evidence to the contrary. When I talked to kids later, many were convinced that the fox was in there.
Stossel says “magical thinking is fine for kids, but another thing when adults do it,” but quickly cautions that “we’re not talking mainstream religion here.” But why not? I’m guessing that Stossel didn’t want to alienate the mainstream religionists in his audience, even though the point he makes indubitably applies to their worldview.
Compare the experiment Stossel describes with Point 6 in my blog The Imaginative Nature of Christian Theism
6. In Christianity, the bible requires adherents to have child-like faith, and a prominent feature of child psychology is an active imagination. I have already pointed this out in my blog With Minds of Children
, which I published in December 2005. In that posting I quoted several relevant statements from the bible and from Christian apologist John Frame.
For instance, Matthew 18:3-4 states:
Similarly, Mark 10:15 states:
Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.
In such passages the New Testament clearly and explicitly makes it a defining requirement for the believer to be “as a little child.” A child is a person who is only beginning to learn about reality, and has no self-consciously understood worldview per se. His time is not spent tending to life’s needs, for these are typically taken care of by parents. Instead, he spends a great deal of his time in play, where fantasy is often the dominant mental counterpart to physical activity, whether it is role playing, playing with dolls, toy automobiles, arts and crafts, etc. In this way a child can be distinguished from an adult in the role his imagination plays in his mental life. As is clear from the statements quoted above, the New Testament makes it clear that this childlike mentality is the ideal persona demanded of the believer.
Touching on this, presuppositional apologist John Frame tells us that
The passage which Frame cites, Luke 18:16, puts the following words into Jesus’ mouth:
Scripture never rebukes childlike faith; indeed, Jesus makes such faith a model to be followed by adults (Luke 18:16). One who requires proof may be doing it out of ungodly arrogance, or he may thereby be admitting that he has not lived in a godly environment and has taken counsel from fools. God’s norm for us is that we live and raise our children in such a way that proof will be unnecessary. (Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 66)
"Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God."
To say that the bible “never rebukes childlike faith,” or that “Jesus makes such faith a model to be followed by adults,” actually understates the position clearly expressed in the bible. The bible requires childlike faith; it is not simply a “model” to which adults are expected to conform. But Frame does make a good point: the bible requires that believers “just believe” what it tells them, and not to require proof. Also, the believer is to surround himself with other believers, all of whom are to be encouraging each other to sustain their belief in a shared fantasy, which is the essence of the “godly environment” Frame has in mind here. Proof is the stuff of reason, but since the biblical worldview is incompatible with reason, it is not surprising to see Christian authorities urging believers to “raise… children in such a way that proof will be unnecessary.” The active mind of a rational thinker is to be discouraged through shame and guilt; believers are expected to believe on the power of authoritative say so, period. This simply opens the door to the imagination as the only alternative to reason available to the believer, for in the final analysis there is no other alternative to reason. Notions like “divine revelation,” the “sensus divinitatus,” “faith,” etc., are merely euphemisms for what is in reality merely a reliance on the imagination.
And while it should be obvious that this evidence is indeed relevant to any inquiry into the whether or not the Christian god is imaginary, Prayson dismisses it out of hand as “irrelevant” and proceeds to ignore it along with the rest of the points I raised on behalf of my case.
The second point of interest comes from Christian apologist Cornelius Van Til’s paper Why I Believe in God
. In this paper, as can be expected from its title, the author provides his reasons for believing in the Christian god. Van Til provides an autobiographical anecdote of his own decision to be a serious Christian in the following passage:
I can recall playing as a child in a sandbox built into a corner of the hay-barn. From the hay-barn I would go through the cow-barn to the house. Built into the hay- barn too, but with doors opening into the cow-barn, was a bed for the working-man. How badly I wanted permission to sleep in that bed for a night! Permission was finally given. Freud was still utterly unknown to me, but I had heard about ghosts and "forerunners of death." That night I heard the cows jingle their chains. I knew there were cows and that they did a lot of jingling with their chains, but after a while I was not quite certain that it was only the cows that made all the noises I heard. Wasn't there someone walking down the aisle back of the cows, and wasn't he approaching my bed? Already I had been taught to say my evening prayers. Some of the words of that prayer were to this effect: "Lord, convert me, that I may be converted." Unmindful of the paradox, I prayed that prayer that night as I had never prayed before.
Notice how Van Til’s own account of his own conversion experience highlights the role of his imagination in his decision-making, and at such a tender age to boot! Here the young Van Til was not an adult assuming the mentality of a child as the biblical passages cited above require of adults. Rather, Van Til was at this point yet a child, and his account of his own experience provides an example of what the bible has in mind in actual practice. Even as an adult, Van Til recognized that what he heard was not coming from “someone walking down the aisle back of the cows,” but he imagined otherwise as a child, and as an adult he never questioned the decisions he made as a child based on fears resulting from this frightening fantasy he later recounted. It is evidence such as this that Prayson would prefer to ignore and dismiss out of hand as “irrelevant.” But Van Til’s own effort to explain why he believed in the Christian god emphasizes not only its relevance, but also its importance to his god-belief.
The third and final point of interest that I want to cite here is from an exchange between atheist Steven Carr and Canon Michael Cole which took place some years ago. I quote from my 2006 blog entry Carr vs. Cole
At one point, while defending the literalist Christian view, Cole stated (1:05:25):
In responses to this, Carr pointed out (1:06:55):
Now the evidence that he is God does not depend entirely on the resurrection. Many other things as well. I think I also want to bring in personal experience. I said earlier on that I’ve been a Christian from the age of twelve. And I’m just aware of God being there in the person of Christ in all sorts of different situations, speaking to me by his spirit through the word of God. There was one particular experience when I was very, very conscious of the risen Christ, actually standing with me in the church I was serving, asking whether we would make him Lord of that church... I wouldn’t say anything about that for 24 hours, it was too personal, too close.
Canon Michael again says he had an experience of the risen Christ. Now that wasn’t a bodily experience. So Conan Michael is disproving the bodily resurrection with his very own experiences.
Carr's point here is extremely significant. Many believers today claim to have experienced the "real Jesus," allegedly sensing Jesus standing right beside them even though we would not see this Jesus figure with them if we were to look at them. Cole himself claims to have had this kind of experience where he "was very, very conscious of the risen Christ, actually standing with me." Of course, Cole is not claiming that Jesus was beside him in a physical body, bloody wounds and all, that anyone could see and come up to touch, as the gospel of John has Doubting Thomas do. The point here is that the believer does not need Jesus to be in a physical body in order to claim to have a personal encounter with him. This certainly casts 1 Cor. 15:3-11 in a new light.
Cole’s opening statement could easily be rephrased to say that belief in the resurrection does not depend “entirely” on evidence. It is Cole who wants to introduce “personal experience” here. Notice that Cole confesses that he had “been a Christian from the age of twelve.” So, since he was a child he has been in the habit of worshiping the Christian god. Given what we saw above about having “childlike faith” and the role of imagination in childhood mental activity, this is significant. Cole says that he is “just aware of God being there in the person of Christ in all sorts of different situations,” but what is noteworthy here is the fact that he does not identify the means by which he is “just aware” of his god. Naturally as an adult believer who initiated his confessional investment in Christianity at the tender age of twelve, Cole had by this point become quite familiar with what the Christian bible says about its god. So by this point he had surely been exposed to the bible’s descriptions of the Christian god, so much so that they have completely colored the image he has formed of his god. And as Carr points out, Cole does not need a physical body of Jesus to experience “the risen Christ” standing right beside him. It would, however, be quite easy for a believer to imagine this in a state of religious ecstasy. Indeed, nothing Cole offers suggests that he was doing anything other than imagining what he claims here to have experienced.
Now since he grants that my argument is formally valid, Prayson must believe that one or more of its premises are not true. He continues:
Christians would probably agree that premise [sic] 1-3 are true, but 4 is false.
One would hope that even “Christians would probably agree that premise[s] 1-3 are true,” but we cannot take such a situation for granted. Recent activity on my own blog, for example, has produced an example of a Christian who does not seem prepared to grant Premise 1, namely that something imaginary is not real.
If we let that which is imaginary is not real = that which does not actually exist outside any given person’s mind, then I suppose the argument is valid; therefore, assuming, for the sake of argument, that Premise 4 is true, the conclusion is true.
But it is odd that the yet-to-actually-exist-outside-my-mind DVD cabinet that I shall soon build in my living room does actually exist in my mind right now and that my mind is part of that which actually exists right now. Let us allow that some outside observer observes me walking down the Home Depot lumber aisle. Now there I am, he sees me. He infers that I have a mind like he does, and he asks me, “Hey, what do you have in your mind to build?”
And I answer, providing further evidence that indeed I do have a mind, “A DVD cabinet.”
“Sweet!” He says.
“And it’s all laid out in my mind as well as in the blueprint I made from the actually existent image I have of it in my mind right now,” I say.
“Sweet!” he says again. “So the DVD cabinet actually exists in your mind, and I see that you actually exist in existence, so the DVD cabinet actually exists in existence, that is to say, its real as it actually exists in your mind.”
“Sweet!” I say. [sic]
Given [a] that this statement was intended as a response to my argument, [b] that its author, like Prayson, grants that my argument is valid, and [c] that its author does not challenge Premise 4, the only way I can read this reaction is to suppose that Rawlings thinks that something he imagines in fact actually exists. He says that the DVD cabinet which he imagines “does actually exist in my mind right now,” and he proceeds in his statement as though this were in fact the case. Rawlings seems to believe that, since the person who imagines something exists, what he imagines therefore also exists. This is the essence of the point he makes in the statement he puts into the mouth of the Home Depot aisle attendant. Of course, this is an enormous non sequitur. But the record of the ensuing discussion with Rawlings shows that he was not willing to budge one millimeter from any of it.
So it is not a given that Christians, or theists in general, will automatically grant the truth of my argument’s first premise. Indeed, in a comment which Prayson himself posted on my blog entry
, it is not clear that that he would consistently
affirm the truth of Premise 1, as he states that “I can imagine something without it necessarily being imaginary.” Unfortunately, he did not give an example of something he can imagine that is not imaginary. I suppose that by this he means he can imagine something which he has seen before in the past, such as another person or an object like a tree or a stapler. But it is still unclear how what
he imagines is itself not imaginary. On the one hand, there are objects in the world which we perceive, and on the other there is what we imagine when we rearrange what we have perceived in the confines of our imagination. They are not one and the same. I can perceive the front door of my house – here I am perceiving something that actually exists. I can also imagine
the front door of my house, such as when I recall it from memory and form a mental image of it. A key point to keep in mind here is that imagination is always selective. Imagination is not the same thing as memory. When we imagine something, we can pull details from memory, but even here we are selecting which details to pull and focus on. The image in our mind is not an independently existing entity. While imagination itself is in fact an activity which our consciousness performs, the object of that activity is not something existing independent of that conscious activity. It is in the context of imagination that we come closest to approximating what the primacy of consciousness metaphysics could be like.
Prayson is correct that my argument “heavily depends on premise 4.” But he does not allow that I “succeed in showing that [the] Christian God is imaginary.” He makes reference to my blog The Imaginative Nature of Christian Theism
where I identify 13 facts which in my view seal the case for the conclusion that the Christian god is in fact merely imaginary. Yet instead of interacting with any of these facts, Prayson simply dismisses them, saying that “even if all 13 points, which are not evidences but assertions, were true, they are irrelevant.”
But why would they be irrelevant even if they were true? What Prayson states in this regard does not explain his dismissal of the points I have cited on behalf of Premise 4. And since he is contending that Premise 4 is indeed not true, it seems that he should at minimum interact with the case that I have put forward on behalf of Premise 4. By citing the 13 points of evidence identified in my blog The Imaginative Nature of Christian Theism
, it should be clear to anyone that I think they are relevant to my case. I would think that anyone who examined each of them with an honest attitude would find at least some of them are relevant to my Premise 4.
On this matter, Prayson offers only the following:
Showing that anyone can imagine supernatural beings, and that followers learn about their gods in written stories, and believe them by faith, and the “failure of religious philosophy to provide the mind with a sound metaphysical theory which securely and reliably allows the adherent to distinguish between reality and imagination” et cetera, even if true, does not show that Christian God is imaginary.
Prayson states this as though we could have awareness of his god independent of the testimony of the bible and/or people who believe that the Christian god is real. I highlight this very point, however, in both Point 3 and Point 10 of my case that the Christian god is imaginary
. First Point 10, which states:
10. We learn about “the supernatural” only from other human beings, never from “the supernatural” itself. This is the case even in stories in which a human being is said to have come in direct contact with “the supernatural,” such as Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. This is a story which comes to us from other human beings. We do not learn about the Christian god, for instance, from the Christian god itself materializing before us and telling us about itself. We have no alternative but to learn about it from sources which are indistinguishable from sources which humans are known to have produced. Of course, believers are tacitly encouraged to profess personal encounters with the supernatural, which is what we find in cases like that of Canon Michael Cole
, who claimed that Jesus was standing in his immediate presence (though apparently no one else present noticed even Jesus standing there beside him!). Human beings are the primary source of our “knowledge” of “the supernatural,” and when they point to other sources as testimony or evidence of “the supernatural,” they are never direct contacts with the supernatural which we can ourselves enjoy, but rather claims of religious experience and therefore secondhand or further removed from our own experience, and we are expected to accept these claims as if they were true, on another human being’s say so. How does one reliably distinguish what we are being asked to believe from a concoction of someone else’s imagination? Sadly, believers give us no objective compass on such questions.
Point 3 of my case states the following:
Adherents learn details about their god from written stories (which puts the Christian god, for example, in the same camp as characters in texts which are known to be fictional). Written stories give the human mind an opportunity to develop vivid imaginations and fantasies. The dominant function of allegory in religious literature is to provide the imagination with the fundamental material to work with in developing lifelike as well as larger-than-life psychological replicas of heroes, villains, events, and cosmic personalities portrayed in religious literature while allowing for a strong element of personal relevance. The Christian believer, for instance, reads about his god in the Old and New Testaments. In these sources, which are dubbed revelatory communication directly from the god he reads about in their pages, the believer finds stories which provide often vivid narratives which the believer personalizes in his imagination of them and accepts as truthful, historical accounts. To quell any nagging doubts about the historical authenticity of the content of these accounts, believers may absorb himself in extra-biblical literature which presumes their truthfulness, or at any rate seeks in one way or another to establish it. Such efforts overlook the fact that what has actually happened is that the believer has read a set of stories and has installed them in his imagination as if they were in fact true before the question of their truth has been critically examined.
It is certainly not the case that we learn about the Christian god from nature. That would nullify the need for “special revelation.” Even Christian theologians admit that we cannot learn, for example, of the “trinitarian” nature of the Christian god except through its alleged “self-revelation.” So Prayson seems anxious to dismiss as “irrelevant” factors which Christian theologians themselves affirm as indispensably important to Christian worship.
What Prayson ignores here is the fact that some or all of the facts which I have cited in my other blog
are present in all cases of Christian god-belief. At minimum, believers inform their understanding – indeed their image
– of the Christian god by assembling it from motivic inputs selected from the Christian bible. Indeed, Christians are expected to do precisely this: they are expected to inform their understanding of the Christian god according to what can be found in the Old and New Testaments.
Recall that the apostle Paul affirms (in Rom. 10:17) that “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” This was written at a time when most Christian laypersons were probably no doubt illiterate and definitely before the time when printed bibles were available for the average adherent to read for himself. The only way most Christians could learn about the Christian god back in Paul’s day was by “hearing” some preacher tell them what to believe. And as the preachers told their adherents what they were expected to believe about the Christian god, their imaginations were excited and what they imagined the Christian god to be grew larger than life in their minds. And it was this idol of the imagination that the believer was then expected to worship and to which he was expected to sacrifice himself. Indeed, an idol in the imagination is still an idol. In this very way, Christianity is a form of idolatry, a “sin” which Christianity itself condemns.
Moreover, it can easily be argued that Prayson misses an important point in all this. The points which I highlight in my case
are what we would expect to be the case if the Christian god were in fact merely imaginary. If the Christian god were merely imaginary, we would expect its believers to rely on their imaginations in ‘conceiving’ of their god; we would expect people to learn about this god from other human beings, either by oral reports or by written sources (or both), as opposed to discovering it by looking at the world itself, such as when we learn about the relationship between, say, ants and plants, soil erosion, the melting point of copper, etc. Human beings did not discover these things by listening to oral tales or reading primitive texts. We learned about them by interacting with reality. That is not what we have in the case of god-belief. On the contrary, everything about god-belief defies the exercise of reason. We would also expect that the worldview attendant to such belief would fail to explicitly teach its adherents to distinguish in principle
between what is real and what is imaginary so as to equip them with what they need to guard against error. But as I point out, this is what we find in Christianity. Indeed, such concerns are far from what concerns its teachings. The issue of circumcision
, of all things, has far greater gravity in the New Testament than anything approaching what we might recognize today as epistemology!
As for “showing” that the Christian god is imaginary, I have indeed cited evidences to support this. But Prayson simply dismisses them as “assertions.” Perhaps we can do the same with god-belief claims: after all, they are merely assertions. Christians offer no actual evidence for their god’s existence. But Prayson’s flippant dismissal of the evidences which I have cited should be concerning, at least for someone like Prayson. Suppose a defense attorney, when confronted with evidences implicating his client as the culprit of the crime for which he is on trial, replies to the citation of those evidences as, “Well, my client’s fingerprints are on the murder weapon, the security camera shows him murdering his victim, traces of the victim’s blood is found in his vehicle, but these are just assertions!” I suppose that most juries would not be persuaded by such feats of denial. Indeed, such bald-faced denial should not be confused with overcoming the evidence supporting the charge in question.
Also note that Point 4 in my list of evidences indicating that the Christian god is indeed merely imaginary
cites religious philosophy’s antagonism towards reason. Prayson offers himself as an example of the mindset which insists on confusing the imaginary with the real when he dismisses evidences provided on behalf of a thesis in order to reject that thesis. The religious mind is one which acts on the assumption that reality can be revised merely by wishing that be other than what it actually is. If certain evidences are inconvenient for one’s position, then dismiss them as assertions. Unfortunately, this knife cuts both ways: Prayson’s claim that the evidences which I have cited are just “assertions” is itself just an “assertion.”
Moreover, Prayson needs to realize that it is in fact not incumbent upon the atheist to prove that the Christian god is imaginary, as though this were some kind of “obligation” that the atheist needs to fulfill. Even believers concede that people imagine supernatural things. Given this fact and the others that I have cited, the theist needs to show that his god is something other than imaginary. After all, he is the one who is claiming that it is real rather than imaginary.
If I imagine an invisible dragon, for instance, how is what I’m imagining not imaginary? Is Prayson or anyone else obligated to prove that what I am imagining is merely imaginary? I would not think so.
Curiously, Prayson writes the following:
If [the] Christian God exists, then it does not matter if anyone can imagine supernatural beings or that Christians learn about this God from written stories and accept them by faith et cetera, because what matters is not the epistemological status of subjects(i.e. Christian) but the ontological status of an object (i.e. God). It is here where Bethrick, thus, does not offer justification to think that premise 4 is true.
Notice the veiled affirmation here of the primacy of existence principle. Prayson is essentially saying that if a thing exists, it exists regardless of what anyone thinks, imagines, believes, does not believe, knows or does not know, etc., that something is the case independent of consciousness. And yet, it is this very principle which theists deny when they affirm the existence of a consciousness upon which the realm of facts depends and to whose conscious activity everything conforms. Theists routinely make use of a principle that is in principle incompatible with their worldview. They do not even know that they are doing this.
To put it plainly, it does no good to affirm that things exist independent of consciousness only then to turn around and affirm the existence of a consciousness upon which everything in existence depends. And yet this is precisely what a theist who appeals to the primacy of existence in order to defend his god-belief is doing in principle. He performatively contradicts himself.
But Prayson is correct in at least this respect: if something is the case, it is the case regardless of the “status” of the subject of consciousness. If the Christian god existed, it would exist independent of consciousness just as any other entity in the universe does. Unfortunately, however, citing this fact does not help Prayson’s case. Philosophy does not end with the recognition that existence exists; rather, this is where philosophy begins. When examining what exists or questions of what exists, we cannot dispense with epistemological concerns. Theists say that their god exists. Fine and dandy. But this assertion invites a long series of questions. Consider for example the following:
- What exactly is the theist saying exists?
- Is what he calls “God” a thing that is supposed to exist independent of the believer’s conscious activity?
- If so, does he claim to have direct awareness of what he is calling “God”?
- If he does claim this, can he identify the means by which he has this direct awareness so that those he wants to convince can perchance make use of the same means to have direct awareness of what he is talking about?
- If he does not claim this, does he claim to have inferred his god’s existence by reference to something he is directly aware of?
- If so, what is that something that he is directly aware of, and how did he infer his god’s existence from it?
- Etc., etc., etc.
Throughout this inquiry, the rational thinker should be on the lookout for clues in the theist’s answers and explanation. For instance, is what the theist describing in fact really just a process that is no different from imagination? If the theist admits that one can imagine supernatural beings like his god, he should be prepared to explain how we can reliably distinguish between what he calls “God” and what may merely be imaginary. It escapes me as to how one can deem such a policy unreasonable.
Ultimately, there is a single question that any atheist who encounters a pushy apologist need pose. And that question is:
When I imagine your god, how is what I am imagining not imaginary?
Since we have no alternative to imagining the Christian god when believers tell us about it, this question is most appropriate, especially since we’re expected to believe that it is real. If theists think we have an alternative to imagining their god, what is that alternative, and how is it different from imagination.
In response to this, Prayson states:
I think, even before answering Bethrick’s atheist question, a pushy apologist could simply turn the table around, and reduce the atheist’s question to absurdity with a counter question:
When I imagine there is no god, how is what I am imagining not imaginary?
So, a pushy apologist could contend, since we have no alternative to imagining no god when an atheist tell us about it, this question is also most appropriate, especially since we’re expected to believe that it is real that god does not exist.
For one thing, the question that I have posed (namely “When I imagine your god, how is what I am imagining not imaginary?
”) does not “reduce to absurdity.” The Christian who objects to this specific
line of inquiry can easily replace the words “your god” with something like “Allah” or “Odin” “Mithras” or “Krishna” and see that in principle
it has practical relevance. Indeed, if I were a believer in Avalokitesvara
, I see no reason why one could not legitimately ask me “When I imagine Avalokitesvara, how is what I am imagining not imaginary?” And I have no idea how I would address this question while protecting my belief in Avalokitesvara at the same time. Perhaps Prayson does? If so, why does he not make use of that defense in the case of his god-belief? If not, what would that imply about his own god-belief?
Moreover, the question that Prayson offers in response to the one I have posed (and which he has yet to answer) is not at all analogous to the question which I have posed, even though he postures it as such. When we imagine, we imagine something, we imagine an object. While earlier Prayson wanted to reserve as a legitimate possibility the view that the object of imagination is real, in the question he offers in response to the one that I have posed, he dispenses with an object altogether. Consider a person who says there is a dragon in his living room. Would Prayson argue that we should ask that person “When I imagine that there is no dragon in your living room, how is what I am imagining not imaginary?” In positive terms, what exactly is being imagined here? There are no positive terms, for nothing is being imagined in such a case. The question seeks to deprive the imaginative act of anything positive to imagine. But this ignores the positive nature of imagination. Whenever one imagines, he is forming a mental image of something. This is positive in nature. In hoping to find some alternative question which stumps my position, Prayson finds that he needs to deny the very nature of imagination in order to come up with something that might stump the rational thinker. Of course, this does not work. It not only fails to address the question which I have posed, it also shows that he needs to ignore the nature of imagination in order to pretend to have come up with some way to circumvent it.
Unfortunately for Christians, the fact is that I know that I am imagining when I imagine the Christian god. And I know this because the conscious activity which I perform when I consider the Christian god as the bible and as Christians would have me consider it, is the same activity which I perform when I consider, for example, a dragon in my living room or a space ship orbiting a distant planet. Indeed, drawing on the very point which Prayson himself makes vis-à-vis the primacy of existence, even if I did not realize that I am imagining when I imagine the Christian god, I am imagining nonetheless. So even if I did not know this, I would still be imagining. Consequently the problem for the Christian remains: when I imagine the Christian god, how is what I’m imagining not imaginary? Nothing Prayson offers in response to this, either in his comment on my blog or in what he writes on his blog, shows that what I am imagining is not imaginary. And given the fact that the imaginary is not real – which Prayson himself granted when he affirmed the truth of Premises 1-3 of my argument – it is an incontestable truth that when I imagine the Christian god, what I imagine is imaginary and therefore not real. There is no way around this conclusion. The inference here is unimpeachable.
Now of course, Prayson could say that he is not imagining when he considers his god. If so, this would be a different matter; this would not show that I am not imagining when I consider the Christian god, nor would it show that what I imagine when I consider the Christian god is not imaginary. Far from it - such a contention would have no bearing on any of this whatsoever. It would be up to Prayson at this point to articulate as best he could the mental process he performs when he considers his god and distinguish this mental process from imagination. Preferably he would need to show how other thinkers can perform the same action he does and arrive at awareness of the same object he calls “God.” At no point in his reaction to my argument does Prayson take up this task.
Prayson continues, saying:
Bethrick confuses the verb imagine with its adjective (imagined/ing) thus fails to see that a person could imagine something that is not necessarily imaginary. Imagine as a verb is simply forming a mental image or concept of, while as an adjective is believing something unreal exists.
For one thing, there is a profound difference between imagining something and forming a concept. However, the very fact that Prayson lumps these two together only confirms my contention, which I have stated elsewhere (see for instance in the recent discussions of these blogs here
), that Christianity has no theory of concepts to begin with. Indeed, Prayson’s lumping imagination with concept-formation only confirms the role of the primacy of consciousness in Christian “epistemology.” But exploring this will have to wait for another time.
But have I, as Prayson states here, confused “the verb imagine with its adjective (imagined/ing)”? I do not think I have, and nothing Prayson offers here suggests that I have done so. The verb ‘to imagine’ denotes a type of activity which a mind can perform; ‘imagined’ used as a past participle can describe, as the object of that action, the mental image so formed. The present participle ‘imagining’ would describe the subject of consciousness which is performing such an action. There is also the gerund ‘imagining’, which is the action of a consciousness performing such action treated syntactically as a noun. I am explicitly aware of all these distinctions, and I have taken care not to confuse them, contrary to what Prayson has alleged here.
Indeed, at no point does any of this rescue the object of imagination from being an object of imagination. So what exactly is Prayson driving at here if not merely attempting to raise a distraction from the matter at hand?
Example I can imagine how my wife would react if I forget our wedding anniversary. Does this follow that her reaction, if I forget our anniversary is imaginary? I do not think so, since if I forget our anniversary, I will bear her full anger, which is real and far from imaginary.
Here Prayson essentially helps to make my point, namely the point which I affirm in Premise 1 of my argument, i.e., that there is a fundamental distinction between what is real and what is imaginary. Prayson himself tells us that he can imagine how a person might react under certain conditions and how that person can be legitimately expected to react if those conditions applied. As Prayson himself points out, they do not necessarily agree. But Prayson also shows the inherent flexibility of imagination when he states, alternatively to the context to which he alluded in his denial, that “if I forget our anniversary, I will bear her full anger.” This, too, he is imagining. And while it may play out to be true should the conditions Prayson imagines come to pass, the anger he must endure from his wife will, as he himself points out, be “real and far from imaginary.”
Further, Prayson states:
I believe, a pushy apologist could reply: “I want you to imagine(forming mental concept of) my God and I will give you a case to think it is warranted to believe that that God does exist. This, my friend, is why what you are going to imagine is not imaginary but real.” With that a pushy apologist may begin to offer a positive case to show that a belief in God is rationally acceptable position thus not imaginary.
Apologists can reply in a variety of ways, but what is important to note is that they cannot reply in a rational way – i.e., by consistently applying reason. They can only offer a pretended semblance thereof. As I have pointed out in other discussions, theistic “proofs” of every variety have the dubious problem of leaving us with no alternative but to imagine the god whose existence they are offered to secure. Whether it is the design argument, the cosmological argument, the ontological argument, the cumulative case argument, the presuppositional argument, Pascal’s wager, etc., all attempts to prove the existence of a god or validate god-belief in any way all leave us with no alternative but to imagine the god we are supposed to be convinced is real. So the remedy which Prayson offers here is of no use: the theist would still be stuck with the same problem. Indeed, if a rational proof could once and for all seal the case for the existence of the Christian god, why would one still need to continue imagining it? Blank out.
Unfortunately, none of what Prayson offers addresses the epistemological issue involved here, namely: by what means is the believer aware of what he calls “God”? He does not perceive it; it is supposed to be beyond the reach of our senses. It is invisible, immaterial, incorporeal, etc. It has no mass, it has no circumference, it has no shape or height or depth, it has nothing that is at all measurable by rational means. And yet it is supposed to be an actual entity, not an abstraction like ‘freedom’ or ‘justice’ or ‘contemplation’. So by what means is the believer allegedly aware of his god, if it is not by means of his imagination? And how does he distinguish this means of awareness from his imagination if he insists that he is aware of his god by some means other than imagination? Prayson addresses none of these questions.
Prayson concludes his blog entry
with the following:
Question: What case would you offer for or against the notion that Christian’s God is imaginary?
But since he has baldly dismissed the evidences that I presented on behalf of the case for the conclusion that the Christian god is imaginary, I suspect he would probably do the same if others should present their own case. Indeed, I might even suspect that he would adopt a far less critical perspective with regard to any case advanced against the conclusion that the Christian god is imaginary.
By Dawson Bethrick
Labels: Epistemology, imagination