A Reply to Matthias on Holy Inference vs. Reason: How Do We Know What’s Inside the Box?
In the present entry, I explore the implications of some statements which Matthias made in his comment regarding epistemology – specifically regarding how believers “conceive of how reality must be in light of how God is.” In my exploration of this, I propose a test scenario in which we find sealed box on our doorstep with no indication of what is inside it. The question is: Do we discover its contents by looking inward (e.g., considering what “must be” in the box “in light of how God is” – which I dub “holy inference”), or by looking outward at the facts of reality (i.e., in this case, by opening the box to discover its contents)?
Now, I grant the possibility that I may be misunderstanding some or all of what Matthias wanted to say in his comment. However, I think his words are plain enough, and I’m only going by what he states in what I find to be a refreshingly clear fashion (in conjunction with statements by other Christians of the presuppositionalist bent), and considering how what he states would play out in real-world situations. Since our worldviews are antithetical to one another (purportedly wholly so, according to presuppositionalists), it is important that the differences between Christianity and Objectivism be articulated as clearly as possible. And yes, I would agree that the differences between holy inference on the one hand, and going with reason on the other, are striking. But if I am perchance misunderstanding what Matthias wanted to say here, it will be up to him to correct me.
We conceive of how reality must be in light of how God is (in cases where the Bible doesn’t describe how a certain part of reality is. It’s all systematic in nature, which is appropriate for a worldview.).
But I cannot help but suspect that what Matthias is describing here is really just a poorly camouflaged version of the looking inward approach to knowledge that really does not provide any actual answers about “how reality must be.” The looking inward approach to knowledge is one in which the knower consults the contents of his consciousness (e.g., his preferences, wishes, likes or dislikes, emotions, imagination, dreams, etc.) as a source of input about reality. This is contrasted with the looking outward approach to knowledge in which we acquire awareness of facts obtaining in the world independent of our conscious activity and identify and integrate them by means of an objective process.
It would be most instructive to observe how the approach which Matthias describes here would play out in an actual real-world situation. Matthias makes it clear that the approach he has in mind here applies to “cases where the Bible doesn’t describe how a certain part of reality is.” Of course, we encounter thousands upon thousands of situations in our everyday experience which fit what Matthias describes here.
But I’ll throw a more or less salient example out, at least for grins. The other day when I got home from work, I found a box sitting on my doorstep. The box was wrapped in plain brown paper and had obviously been delivered by the mailman (given the postage stamps on top of it). As far as I could make out, it came to the right address and seemed to be addressed to my wife (though my facility reading handwritten Thai is not the best). Beyond that, there was no indication as to what the box contained, and so far as I knew, my wife was not expecting anything. There were no discernible markings other than the addressee and the sender (which I did not recognize), and none of this indicated to me what the contents could be. So whatever the box contained was a complete mystery to me. Now on the basis of my worldview, there’s no problem here: I do not assume omniscience, and I recognize that to discover what exists in reality requires me to look outward and apply an objective process. To discover the contents, then, my worldview holds that I would need to open the package and take a look inside.
But what about Matthias’ Christian worldview in which believers “conceive of how reality must be in light of how God is (in cases where the Bible doesn’t describe how a certain part of reality is)”? Now, I suppose I could first flip through the Old and New Testaments to make sure that no part of the bible already includes a passage telling me what’s in the box that was delivered to my house. But somehow I don’t think I would be surprised to find that this would not help me move forward toward discovering what’s in the box. But never fear, Matthias tells us that we can “conceive of how reality must be in light of how God is.” He also says “it’s all systematic in nature,” so there must be some clear step-by-step set of instructions that anyone should be able to perform that would tell us what “must be” in the box “in light of how God is.” So Matthias should be able to apply this methodology (what specific steps the believer is supposed to take here is not explained) and tell me what “must be” in the box. Specifically, his methodology of going by “how God is” should not rely on my methodology of looking outward at reality, for opening the package and looking inside it could not be a methodology that proceeds “in light of how God is.” Moreover, we are told (in Pushing the Antithesis: The Apologetic Methodology of Greg L. Bahnsen, p. 96) that:
The Christian worldview does not simply differ with unbelieving worldviews at some points, but absolutely conflicts with it across the board on all points.So the Christian approach "must be" completely antithetical to the Objectivist approach. Thus it could not make use of reason as Objectivism understands it. So how would this work?
You said in a comment on the other post that your understanding of concepts is largely garnered through or by reason of your senses/experience. And from there it seems you conceive of possible ways God God must be in light of your understanding of how reality is. And so the Christian approach is fundamentally different than that of the Objectivist.
Also, if something does exist (specifically, something that exists independent of our conscious activity), we do not discover its nature and validate our identification of it by means of looking inward. Objectivists are not rationalists (where “rationalism” is essentially deduction without reference to reality). We look outward, observe the entities which exist, taking note of what we discover about their nature, identify them on this basis by means of concepts and thereby integrate them without contradiction into the sum of our knowledge. Generally this procedure is called reason: the method by which we identify and integrate the material provided by the senses.
To discover the contents of a box that we find on our doorstep, for example, we do not look inward into the content of our imagination or hoping about an imaginary being and deduce from this what “must be” in the box. On the contrary, we open the box and take a look inside. This is what Objectivism holds that we should do, given our nature as biological organisms which possess a means of awareness that has a specific identity, namely sense perception.
In my previous post, I quoted a number of statements by leading presuppositionalist thinker Greg Bahnsen who urges that apologists “attack” whatever positions and methodologies non-believers “espouse.” Thus to be faithful to the presuppositionalist agenda, Matthias should “attack” the Objectivist view which teaches that we should open the box to discover and identify its contents. In fact, given what Matthias has stated above about “conceiv[ing] of how reality must be in light of how God is,” it is unclear how the believer could be consistent with what Christianity teaches and still apply reason in his efforts to identify the facts he encounters in the world. Bahnsen also states (Always Ready, p. 78):
The apologist... must take God’s word as his self-evidencing presupposition, thinking God’s thoughts after Him (rather than attempting to be neutral), and viewing God’s word as more sure than even his personal experience of the facts.
But the other Christian says, “Maybe we should open the box and confirm that it’s the Shroud of Turin beach towel your ordered.” But the first Christian is incensed by this suggestion and accuses his brother of autonomous reasoning. The second Christian tries to reason with him, saying he thinks it would be wise to check the contents to be sure that a mistake in holy inference has not been made. But the first Christian retorts with a huff, saying “God is infallible! He does not make mistakes! We are to view God’s word as more sure than even our own personal experience of the facts.” Meanwhile, the second Christian hastily opens the box and finds inside it a Virgin Mary head scarf. Indeed an error has been made – Eerdmans picked the wrong item when filling the order, for indeed the packing slip clearly states that a Shroud of Turin beach towel was supposed to be in the box. I would say that an even graver mistake has been made, specifically an epistemological (if we dare call it that) mistake. Looking inward is no substitute for looking outward. Even the second Christian had enough sense to suppose it’s necessary to confirm a holy inference by checking the facts by looking outward.
It should also be noted that, since the only legitimately meaningful concepts available to us are those that are formed on the basis of an objective process (i.e., as detailed by the objective theory of concepts), Christianity’s use of various concepts to describe their god leads invariably to contradictions of various sorts in their use of such concepts. Essentially, Christianity misappropriates concepts, applying them without explicit understanding of how they are formed, how they relate to what they denote, and how the mind should consistently recognize the fundamental distinction between reality and imagination.
For instance, Objectivism draws our attention to the fallacy of the stolen concept. This fallacy occurs when one employs a concept while ignoring or denying its genetic roots – i.e., the foundations on which it stands and without which it has no objective content. An example would be if a person affirms the validity of Euclidian geometry while denying the truths of basic arithmetic. Since geometry makes use of basic arithmetic, one could not affirm the validity of geometry while denying the truths of basic arithmetic. This would be a contradiction within the conceptual hierarchy.
Consider the concept ‘knowledge’. The concept ‘knowledge’ denotes a mental grasp of reality made possible by means of reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by the senses) and retained in the form of concepts (mental integrations which condense a potentially limitless quantity of data into a single unit made possible by a process of abstraction). Thus knowledge is something that must be acquired (since we don’t already know it) and validated by an objective process (since mistakes can be made). Along with this it should be noted that knowledge serves a purpose. Knowing is not an end in itself. It serves a genuine human need. The purpose of knowledge is not to go out and win debates, but to make living possible. Man faces a fundamental alternative – life vs. death, and he needs values in order to live. Thus life is conditional. Man needs knowledge of reality in order to identify what is a value to his life and what is a threat to it, and also to identify the proper actions he should take to acquire the former and avoid the latter. Etc.
But when Christians apply the concept ‘knowledge’ to their god, they ignore these genetic roots of the concept and apply it in a context which outright denies their involvement. The Christian god is supposed to be “omniscient,” meaning that it has always known everything for all eternity. It “just knows” everything, not as a result of applying some process (for this would imply a starting point of non-omniscience, and Christians typically deny this about their god), but as a result of its nature qua “God” (i.e., something we must imagine). Thus it did not acquire its knowledge by means of applying reason to what it perceived; indeed, it can hardly be said to have perceived anything since it is also said to be non-physical, having no body, no parts, etc., which means: it does not have eyes, ears or other sensory organs; it has no brain or central nervous system; it has no biological structures needed to make perception possible in the first place. So it could not reason to begin with; indeed, if it already knew everything, it wouldn’t need to reason. So reason is completely out of the equation here. Also, the Christian is supposed to be eternal, immortal, indestructible. Thus it would not face the fundamental alternative between life and death that man faces. Thus it would not need to identify what is a value and what is a threat to its existence; it would not need any values to begin with, and nothing could threaten its existence. Thus it would have no objectively defined purpose for knowledge. Indeed, I have already presented an argument concluding that an omniscient mind would not have knowledge in conceptual form (see here). All these points indicate that ‘knowledge’ becomes a stolen concept when theists apply it to their god as they describe it. To whatever extent, then, that Christians affirm that their god has “knowledge,” it could only be “knowledge” falsely so-called.
Other examples of stolen concepts resulting from theistic misappropriation of concepts include ‘life’, ‘love’, ‘purpose’, ‘value’, ‘morality’, ‘justice’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘evil’, etc., etc.
So indeed there are stark contrasts informing the antithesis between Christianity on the one hand, and Objectivism on the other. Where Christianity rests on the looking inward model of “knowledge” which seats knowledge on imagination, emotions and speculations informed by the stories of supernatural beings, miracles, super-human heroes of ancient lore, Objectivism adheres to the epistemological model of looking outward at the facts of reality to identify and integrate the proper contents of knowledge. Christianity requires the believer to guide his thinking according to the contents of an ancient storybook, whose authors were undoubtedly captivated by figments of their own imagination, and to discount the facts that they experience firsthand; by contrast, Objectivism teaches the individual why it is important to look outward at the facts to inform his knowledge on the basis of reason, since only knowledge that is informed by objective input can meet his need for knowledge as such. The contrasts here are eloquently brought out into the light in salient examples such as determining the contents of a box we find delivered to our doorstep: while the Christian worldview would have believers look inward to determine by holy inference on the basis of what their god “is” to conclude what “must be” in the box, the Objectivist procedure would be to open the box and look inside it. To charge this with fallacy (e.g., the so-called “crackers in the pantry” fallacy a la Greg Bahnsen) is to say that employing reason to acquire and validate knowledge is fallacious activity. I can think of nothing so intellectually disingenuous as a worldview that seeks to foist such clearly false teaching on its adherents as this.
by Dawson Bethrick