A Reply to Matthias on Imagination and Its Role in Theism
Matthias has posted comments inquiring on various aspects of my critique of theism on the following blog entries of mine:
For sake of reference, I am posting my argument proving that the Christian god does not exist which I present in this blog:
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.
The objection often comes up that we can base our imaginations on what we have perceived. For example, I can imagine my wife. Now, my wife truly does exist, and when I perceive her with my senses, I am perceiving something that is real, something that exists. If she were not real, I would not be able to perceive her. But if I imagine her, the images I assemble in my mind are not collectively an entity existing independently of my conscious activity. There is a fundamental distinction here: on the one hand, there is my wife – a lovely young woman, a physical entity, a real thing that can be perceived and observed by means of the senses; on the other, there is what I imagine about my wife – an assembly of selectively arranged mental images, not a physical entity, not a real thing that can be perceived or observed by means of the senses.
Imagination is not just a bunch of ideas. Imagination is the faculty by which one selectively rearranges chosen attributes that he has perceived or observed into combinations that he does not and has not perceived or observed. Note that, even if we take some thing that exists independent of our consciousness which we have observed and then imagine things about it, there is still a fundamental distinction between (a) the thing that exists and (b) what we are imagining.
For example, I have perceived and observed my wife; at the moment she is laying on the couch playing with our daughter. But as I think about her, I think about a desire she has expressed in the past to try skydiving. She has never gone skydiving in her life. But I can imagine my wife skydiving. So while she is sitting a few feet away from me right here in our house, I imagine her flying in a small plane over some open land, suited up and ready for her first jump. I imagine her racing with excitement as the plane’s engine roars a two miles over the earth. She and her coach are preparing to step off the aircraft and plunge off its side.
Now what I am imagining here is not real; my wife is not really flying in an aircraft with a parachute strapped to her and readying herself for a skydiving jump; she’s right here in our living room playing with our daughter. No one else is experiencing what I am imagining at the moment; no one else can perceive the images I am assembling in my mind. It is not a real event. It is imaginary. Certain parts of the image I create in my mind are based on things I have observed, but that is the ability which imagination gives us to do: to selectively rearrange things we have observed into mental images of things we have not observed.
So I offer these pointers just to have in place a better understanding of what I mean by imagination.
Now to date Matthias has not made it entirely clear which of the premises in my above argument he wants to challenge. It may be that he wants to challenge Premise 1 as other Christians before him have attempted. For example, in a comment on my blog , Matthias made the following statement:
if someone tells me about Quantum Mechanics, I can merely imagine it. I certainly don't understand it all, and so I have no alternative but to imagine it. But it seems that you want to say that God is "imaginary" on the basis that you use your mind to simply contemplate God (this is an odd use of the term). If this contemplation doesn't mean Quantum Mechanics doesn't exist, then I don't see how it means that God doesn't exist.
I doubt that this is the case, at least for some specialists working in the field of physics. While my understanding of QM is quite limited, it has been explained to me that we can derive conclusions about QM through mathematics ultimately based on observable facts. Since mathematics and imagination are not the same thing, I would suppose that physicists who study QM would challenge your statement, and for good reason. That being said, I suspect a lot of imagination is involved on the part of some physicists who apply various interpretations to findings in QM, in which case they may very well be departing from reality.
Also, per my understanding, QM begins with things that we perceive – e.g., physical objects which we can see and touch, which do not imagine and which do not conform to our imagination – and proceeds on the basis of mathematical analyses of those objects, essentially breaking them down into subdivisions which we cannot perceive as distinct entities. Imagination may in fact be involved in this process, but since it is guided by mathematics and observable facts (such as by means of equipment that can bring the imperceptible into the range of our perceptual faculties), it does not necessarily depart from reality; it might, but it might not.
The key here is the principle of objectivity which, I expect, would require tremendous precision on the part of a physicist to maintain. Since so many thinkers are already confused as to what objectivity entails, failure to maintain objectivity in deriving conclusions in areas where research takes us to reaches that are so remote from direct perceptual observation is probably more commonplace than we’d like to admit. Hence we find in physics today a lot of bizarre notions that are easily commandeered into mystical defenses (of which Rick Warden has so graciously provided several examples).
So I don’t think QM as a general category is at all on the same par with god-belief. In the case of god-belief, we are not deriving conclusions by mathematical processes based on facts which we can observe and guided by a consistent application of the principle of objectivity. Rather, god-belief requires us to abandon the principle of objectivity outright, jump straight into the deep end of our imagination and pretend that what we imagine is real. This is why there has been such a wide variety of religious views throughout the history of mankind – all of them in one way or another assuming the primacy of consciousness – beginning with the consciousness of the believer himself. The two things they all have in common are (a) the assumption of the primacy of consciousness, and (b) reliance on imagination as the ultimate “means” of “knowing” what such mystical views affirm as “truth.”
Now, in addition to this material, the testing, the readouts, the chemical compounds, the residual accumulations, waste product, etc., which the physicist’s lab equipment is designed to work with, the physicist is certainly able to imagine things about what he’s observing, just as I can imagine things about my wife. He can imagine what neutrons, protons, electrons, quarks, and other quantum material would look like if he were shrunk down to a size which would enable him to perceive them. But at this point he is imagining, and the images he’s assembling in his mind are not mind-independent entities. The upshot here is that the distinction between reality and imagination still obtains even in Quantum Physics.
After explaining things like this to Matthias, he wrote:
I did not mean to compare theism to QM except to say that they're both things that a person can possibly not fully comprehend.
But I do not think that a physicist has no alternative to his imagination in deriving conclusions about Quantum Mechanics. Nor do I think imagination is a proper substitute for lack of comprehension of things. Moreover, not fully comprehending something and imagining something are not the same thing. I can fail to fully comprehend some matter (such as QM), but also bracket what I imagine out of the inquiry as well (such as if I focus only on the concrete data, mathematical equations, etc.).
When it comes to contemplating a god, however, I don't think bracketing out what is merely imaginary is possible. And yes, the concepts ‘imagine’ and ‘contemplate’ are not synonymous, but I think instances of contemplation can involve imagining. And there’s nothing wrong with that per se (such as when I contemplate my wife’s desire to go skydiving), so long as we consistently recognize the distinction between reality and imagination. If I contemplate a painting, for example, what I am perceiving is a still image, a frozen moment, and it’s very easy – enjoyable, in fact – to imagine things about what I see in the painting, depending on its subject matter. But I’m careful not to confuse what I imagine with reality. I think this is important.
Imagination is a volitional process in which we selectively rearrange things we have perceived or observed in new combinations. There are of course degrees to which what we imagine conforms to what we have observed or departs from it. For example, I have a small gas stove in my kitchen. I see it every day, so I’m quite familiar with it, and I have percepts of it well retained in my memory. So I can sit here in my living room, the stove well out of sight, and imagine it quite vividly. I can try to reconstruct in my imagination images of the oven as faithful to what I have actually perceived, and I can distort it wildly out of shape as well, all by volition. The stove that I have has two burners, but I can easily imagine it having four burners or forty-five burners; I can imagine all the burners arranged on a single plane, or I can imagine them arranged vertically in tiers, like shelves. I can imagine that it does not need a gas connection – all the jets are essentially eternal flames that I can turn on and off. I can imagine the stove talking back to me, telling me that it likes the smell of the omelet I’m cooking. I can imagine it singing in Chinese or debating metaphysics with itself in German. I can imagine anything I want. But I realize that the images which I create in my mind using imagination are not actual entities existing independently of my consciousness, and I also realize that I can deviate from what I have observed in reconstructing it in my imagination to the Nth degree if you will.
Because imagination is a volitional process which we perform by looking inward, there are no objective constraints limiting it exclusively to faithful representations of what we have observed. As they say, “the sky’s the limit” with the imagination. In fact, even the sky is no limit; we can imagine things flying around in outer space. We can also imagine supernatural things. We can even imagine there’s a heaven.
What I think now, however, is that your reasoning from empiricist (which I gather from your emphasis on ‘physical’) foundations precludes any explanation of God which doesn't include what is considered empirically “imaginary.”
The alternative is to look inward at the contents of our consciousness, in which case the subject of consciousness holds epistemological primacy over the objects of consciousness. This is the subjective approach to knowledge; it corresponds to the metaphysical primacy of consciousness. It is the view that the objects of consciousness depend on and/or conform to the subject of consciousness. This would essentially be like saying “wishing makes it so,” whether it is to one’s own wishing or to someone else’s wishing that he attributes such power. Expressions of this view would include the notion that an apple, for example, is an apple because some consciousness wished it that way; that an apple is of the golden delicious variety because someone wished that it be of that variety; that it exists in a specific location at a specific time because some consciousness wished it that way; and/or that the apple could turn into a carrot or an automobile because some consciousness wishes it that way.
That there is a fundamental distinction between reality and imagination is self-evident. If I observe an apple and imagine that it turn into a carrot, the apple does not conform to my imagining. The same is the case with other conscious actions I can perform, such as wishing, commanding, wanting, hoping, dreaming, becoming angry, etc. No matter what conscious action I perform, the apple will remain an apple and not turn into a carrot.
But I can imagine a scenario in which the apple turns into a carrot as a result of conscious activity. I can imagine that the apple obeys my consciousness, and I can imagine that the apple obeys some other consciousness. I can even imagine a consciousness which has such power over its objects. Of course, since I know that there is a fundamental distinction between reality and imagination, I know that what I imagine is not real, even if I want it to be real. Again, since the primacy of existence metaphysics tells us explicitly that the objects of consciousness do not depend on or conform to the contents of the subject of consciousness, I would be wrong in supposing that imagination can alter reality simply because I want it to.
The primacy of existence, then, provides the metaphysical basis in terms of an absolute, self-evident principle for objective epistemology. It helps us distinguish between reality and imagination as well as between truth and fantasy. Thus, speaking to Matthias’ expressed concern above, objective epistemology does indeed provide us with the rational basis by which we can confidently slash off entire categories of false ideas, particularly when those ideas reduce to or assume the primacy of consciousness metaphysics. Adhering to such an epistemology and its logical conclusions is only intellectually responsible.
It is important at this point to note that our imagination can be guided things we read. For example, when I read a passage in a novel, I know that when it describes a scene with characters, describing some parts of the scene to one degree or another, putting dialogue into the mouths of its characters, describing their appearance and actions, etc., I assemble images of what is described in my imagination. Some details informing what I imagine are supplied by the text, and others I supply myself based on things that I have observed in my own life. Now as I work my way through the novel scene by scene, dialogue by dialogue, chapter by chapter, the image complex that I have been assembling in my imagination naturally grows in detail and context to the point that it almost seems to have a life of its own. It’s like a universe unto itself, albeit utterly fantastic in nature. Naturally many people find this enjoyable; one fellow I used to work with until fairly recently would read about four novels in just one weekend. Probably 10 novels a week. (He would read on his little Kindle reader, which he carried everywhere.) I had many discussions with him about his experience of fiction, and everything he conveyed confirmed what I myself have experienced when reading a novel, though on a much more scaled-down level (since I hardly ever read fiction – I just never had the stamina for it). He really enjoyed the life that the characters and universe that novels helped him create in his imagination.
But I have also observed that the same thing occurs when I read a passage of the bible. I find myself imagining what is described in the text. Whether it is “In the beginning, God created the earth and the heaven” or “Jesus wept” or any other scene, I have to make use of my imagination in order to experience what I’m reading. Moreover, when I was a Christian and tried to integrate the bible’s teachings into my life, I found that I could only do this by relying very heavily on my imagination, such as when I prayed, when I worshiped, when I tried to “give glory to God,” when I tried to “let go and let God,” when I tried to “resist the devil,” when I tried to figure out why I was so miserable as a Christian, etc. Indeed, I found that the more my life was falling in line with what Christianity required of me, the more my imagination was taking over my entire psychology. Proverbs says that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7). This verse and others like it were repeated over and over in church sermons, Sunday school lessons, conversation with other “saints,” etc. But I realized that in order to experience “the fear of God,” I first had to imagine a god that invoked fear. And along with numerous other inputs from the bible and church teaching, it was not at all difficult to imagine a terrifying, hideous god. And the more I was encouraged to believe that this thing that I imagined in my mind was real, the more the resulting fear began to consume my life.
I am reminded of a comment made by a Christian over on Triablogue. After quoting John 21:4-7, he remarked:
That wonderful and striking image, of the impetuous and impulsive Peter leaping out of the boat, unable in his bewildered excitement to bear another moment apart from the Lord . . . It has always captured my imagination.
James 4:8 says “Draw nigh unto God, and he will draw night to you.” When I was a believer, I found that this verse was commonly repeated in church teachings. But how exactly does one “draw nigh unto God”? Do we do this by looking outward at the world around us, finding something that we perceive, and “drawing night” to it? I don’t think so. When I look outward at the world, I find objects that are physical, finite, corruptible, and destructible. But “God” is supposed to be non-physical, infinite, incorruptible and indestructible. “Drawing nigh” to a door post or a kitchen cabinet is presumably not the same as “drawing nigh to God.” To do this, I had to look inward - specifically into the contents of my imagination. And there I would have a one-way conversation – with me doing all the talking – imagining that this supernatural consciousness that is said to have created the entire universe was taking an interest in everything I had to say.
My church had a lot of talk of demons, too, just as the bible does. Demons, we were told, were out in the world trying to undermine our faith, cause havoc in our lives, create confusion in our minds, etc. These were nefarious spirits whose goal it was to draw us away from the Christian god. So fervent prayer was recommended to guard against this. Fervent prayer is like stoking the furnace of the imagination, almost a form of auto-hypnosis in which one persuades himself that the Christian god is on his side, that he is in its good graces, all in an effort to instill the desired attitude toward oneself and the world.
But the demons could come at any time, and they knew better than I did when I was most vulnerable. If something was puzzling me – such as a key not working in a lock – or frustrating me – such as having to wait a really long time for a bus to come – I found that, given all the teachings in Christianity about demons seeking to thwart the Lord’s faithful soldiers, I was imagining demons fomenting mischief. But then I remembered passages which emphasize the need for believers to be longsuffering, to endure trials and tribulations, that “God” would seek to “toughen” his soldiers through these trials and tribulations. For the Christian god “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt. 5:45). Was the cause of my frustration a holy lesson to be learned, or a demonic attack intended to shake my faith?
Consequently, having nothing objective to indicate which spiritual forces were throwing stumblingblocks before me – whether it was a demon trying to rattle my faith, or “God” seeking to “temper” my spirit – I could only retreat further into my imagination and entertain the possibility that either scenario was the invisible cause of situations stifling my progress. This can only lead a believer who’s doing his level best to apply the devotional program of Christianity consistently into what I call “the labyrinth” – an interminable, inescapable psychological maze that traps its victims in a never-ending chase for something he can never achieve, namely certainty and genuine reassurance.
Consider a paper by Cornelius Van Til (Why I Believe in God) in which he describes how he came to “the faith.” Here’s the relevant 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.
Canon Michael Cole, in a discussion with Steven Carr (details can be found here), describes an experience of his that was clearly embalmed in his theistically-motivated imagination:
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.
I could go on citing numerous other examples, but this should give readers an idea of what I’m talking about here and how abundant the evidence is that the imagination is very much involved in god-belief.
It turns out that what you're saying is that God-belief is not compatible with empiricist or objectivist philosophy.
I'm only too happy to agree.
God-belief violates primacy of existence simply because it wasn't crafted to be fitted into that paradigm to begin with.
I can understand how, when looking out and not seeing God, you would find only evidence for the primacy of existence.
God himself is not found in nature.
Nor, really, does he technically exist in the Bible.
But since our perception functions in an analogous manner to God's
Thus, from my perspective (i.e., Objectivism), applying the concept ‘perception’ to the Christian god would commit the fallacy of the stolen concept. As it is properly understood (i.e., on the basis of objective inputs about the nature of perception which we discover by looking outward), perception so understood is only possible if there are sensory organs and a nervous system making sensation possible in the first place. But the Christian god is supposed to be immaterial and have no body to begin with, so I’m not sure how to understand what Matthias states here. Of course, I fully grant that I can imagine that a supernatural, immaterial consciousness can perceive, but I’d merely be imagining in such a case. What I imagine is not real.
we are able to understand details about things that we cannot immediately see.
An example is the concept ‘man’ which we form on the basis of the individual men we have actually perceived and observed, but which includes all men who live now, who have ever lived and who will ever live. This concept is initially formed on the basis of a very small number of referents (e.g., as few as two or more) which are grouped together on the basis of common similarities which we observe among them (thus grouping them on an objective basis). Per the function of measurement-omission, the abstraction process de-specifies specific measurement categories (such as height) such that the units included in the concept must be some height, but may be any height, of course within human ranges. So the concept ‘man’ includes men who are 5’6” tall as well as men who are 6’4” tall, etc. Similarly with eye color, skin color, age, weight, body type, moral character, relationships, aspirations, profession, etc., etc., etc. Importantly, two key measurements which are omitted in forming concepts of entities such as ‘man’ are time and location. So the concept ‘man’ includes every man who lived in ancient Egypt, every man who now lives in New York City, and every man who will live in Singapore in the future, etc. Because time and place are omitted measurements, the referents of the concept ‘man’ are not restricted to any particular time or place.
A concept is thus “open-ended” in this respect – i.e., universal. Because of this, when one speaks of a specific man that he has known personally wherever he happens to live, we can correlate this linguistic symbol ‘man’ with our concept ‘man’ and thus have a field of reference to work with in understanding what is being stated. Naturally a common tongue is necessary for such understanding to happen since in this case it would require communication between two individuals, the speaker and the listener. But if an individual meant by the linguistic symbol ‘man’ what I mean by the linguistic symbol ‘telephone’, I would not be able to understand him well at all. Concepts come first, then come the linguistic symbols we use to retain those concepts and communicate them to others.
So it is by means of concepts that we can understand things that we do not perceive firsthand. If a friend of mine calling from Michigan tells me about a man he met at the post office, I can relate what he says to my concept of ‘man’ and thus have a basis for understanding something I personally did not see. Of course, I can at this point also imagine the man my friend met at the post office in Michigan. But this too requires me first to have the concept ‘man’ in order to do this. Again, concepts come first in communication.
You and I can understand a certain type of tree by simply reading about it, without ever having to see, feel, etc. the tree itself.
So again, the understanding process is a process of conceptual integration. Since legitimate concepts are formed on the basis of the looking outward model of epistemology, they provide me with the objective epistemological basis necessary for understanding the world in which I exist.
My imagination didn't write the Bible, for instance.
The record that these ancient people left also show no indication that they had any informed understanding of the nature of concepts and the process by which the human mind forms them. We do not turn to Leviticus or Jeremiah or the Epistle of Jude to find an informed understanding of the nature of concepts. Indeed, just what would a distinctively Christian theory of concepts look like? In spite of looking, I have never found one.
If you're alleging that what the bible says was conceived by someone exercising their imagination, that would require some rigorous proof itself.
On the other hand, what alternative to imagination did the authors of the biblical texts have? What epistemological process did they use to get the knowledge they claimed to have? How did Abraham know that the voice commanding him to prepare his own son as a burnt offering belonged to a supernatural consciousness which is believed to have created the universe? When addressing this question, John Frame throws up his arms in bafflement and exclaims, “We know without knowing how we know” (see here). This comes from one of the leading thinkers of a school of apologetics which includes the tactic of asking the question “How do you know?” over and over and over again in an effort to get the non-believer to surrender and submit. And yet, Christianity itself has no answer to such questions. How did the folks who penned the story of Abraham being commanded by a voice he heard to prepare his son as a sacrifice, themselves know that this really happened to Abraham? Were they there? Could they have imagined some aspects of the story? What tells us that they could not have? How did the ancients learn that the world was created by an act of consciousness in the first place? If they could discover this through some rational means, we should be able to as well. But even looking at arguments like William Lane Craig’s “kalam” argument, I’ve never seen any good reason to suppose that the existence of the universe resulted from an act of consciousness. Even with Craig’s fancy apologetic arguments, we still have no alternative but to imagine the god whose existence he claims to have proven.
So we cannot get around the fact that people back then could imagine things like this, and that even people today do in fact imagine them. I know of no good reason whatsoever to suppose that the ancients were any different in this regard. To argue that the authors were divinely inspired, Christians typically need to make appeals to supernaturalism, which of course is what’s in question to begin with. It does not beg any questions to point to human imagination as a means of conjuring up the contents of god-belief, for we know that human beings do have imagination, there have been thousands of varieties of god-belief throughout human history, we know that people have been writing down their imaginative stories for thousands of years, and theists themselves can point to no objectively verifiable alternative to imagination as the means by which such “knowledge” can be acquired and validated.
So I am wholly satisfied with the evidence and where it points – i.e., to human imagination as the source of the Christian god’s “existence.”
Consider the fundamentals here as I understand them:
1. Christians tell us that their god is an immaterial, supernatural consciousness (a “spirit”) which we cannot perceive by means by sense-perception.
2. This means that we cannot have awareness of their god by looking outward at reality – otherwise they could point to it and say, “See that? That’s God!”
3. Thus we need to look inward into the contents of our own minds to acquire “awareness” of their god.
4. Human beings have the ability to imagine, and often confuse what they imagine with reality, especially if they have not adopted a worldview which self-consciously guides its thinkers to consistently and explicitly recognize the fundamental distinction between reality and imagination.
5. The texts of the ancient Israelites and early Christians provide no explicit teaching on the proper nature of the relationship between consciousness and its objects, and consequently do not provide an objective basis for distinguishing between reality and imagination.
6. The texts of the ancient Israelites and early Christians read like stories from contemporary cultures which are regarded as fictional (with legends of virgin births, demonic possession, miracles, talking animals, angelic visitations in dreams, savior cults, etc.).
7. The ancient Israelites were no less human than we are, and had the ability to imagine just as we do.
8. Today we learn about the Christian god from human believers rather than from direct appearances and visitations by the god itself. Presumably if it were real and wanted to make its existence and nature unmistakably clear to us, it could appear before us just as it is said to have done in the case of Saul the persecutor as described in the Book of Acts. But Christians typically come up with excuses – invariably very weak ones – for why their god will not do this (a situation that is entirely compatible with their god-belief being a complete fiction).
9. Apologetic arguments intended to prove that the Christian (or other) god exists leave us with no alternative but to use our imaginations in order to contemplate the god whose existence these arguments allegedly prove. Thus they move us no closer to objectively verifying their god-belief claims.
10. The notion of a “disembodied consciousness” or a “spirit” without a body – i.e., consciousness without biology, requires us to ignore what we discover about the nature of consciousness by looking outward at the world in arbitrary preference for things we “discover” by looking inward at the contents of our wishes, imagination, preference, dreams, emotions, etc.
I can conceive of some explanation as to why money is missing from my wallet (a hole, strong wind, etc), but if a thief actually reached in his hand and took cash, well, primacy of existence, right?
The ancient Egyptians had their lore, the ancient Persians had theirs,the Babylonians had theirs, the ancient Dravidians had theirs, the Mayans and Aztecs had theirs, the Greeks had theirs, etc., etc., etc. Why suppose that these were all misguided fantasies, but the Israelites’ lore is exceptional for some reason? It seems that we need not just rigorous arguments to defend the biblical text’s claim to divine authenticity, but some actual, unmistakable demonstrations of supernatural power.
There's no doubt a psychological aspect to belief in God. It makes me feel good to believe in God. It makes others feel bad to believe in God. Neither have any effect on his actual existence, and it would be closing the mind too soon to conclude anything about God's existence from that.
But feelings can provide the theist with motivation to ignore facts and affirm imaginative arbitrariness in place of truth. Christian apologist Mike Licona came out and openly acknowledged, “I want it to be true” (see here for details).
Indeed, the psychological aspect of god-belief is pretty much the extent of what it is, aside of course from the practical consequences of attempting to put this psychology into action in one’s life. It is not simply about accepting certain beliefs, but also adopting a particular attitude toward one’s own mind – specifically an attitude of self-sacrifice – and to the world as well as to truth. According to Christian teaching, for example, the Christian god demands total devotion and submission to its will. The believer is not to think of his mind as his own, but as the property of a god which could at any time demand the believer to prepare his own child as a burnt offering (as we see in the case of Abraham and his son Isaac in Gen. 22, a story held up as a model of exemplary faith in Hebrews 11). Let us not forget that this is a deity which, according to the biblical text, stood by while its own son was being tortured and executed by vicious people. If it sacrificed its own son, what would stop it from sacrificing any mere mortal?
Consider the psychological ramifications of a worldview informed by such notions. The believer is to live his life in the service of something he cannot perceive, something he cannot reason with, something he can never fully understand, something he cannot explain, something he cannot count on (for all he knows, his god might come as “thief in the night” and take him or any of his loved ones from this life). This is a god which demands that believers hate their parents, their spouses, their siblings, their children, their own very lives (Lk. 14:26). Psychologically, the faithful believer has essentially adopted an attitude of: “I believe whatever I’m told to believe; I surrender my own judgments and forego the choice to discriminate knowledge claims before accepting them as knowledge so long as they come from the approved source; .” Even the believer cannot demonstrate either to himself or to the world that he has not been supernaturally deceived. His worldview affirms the existence of mischievous demons and devils which are out trying to rob believers of their “salvation” by whatever form of trickery they have at their disposal. If they can cause sickness in the body, why not suppose that they can deceive the believer’s mind? If the believer insists that he’s not been deceived, what do we have but his mere say so to accept this?
One of the lessons that believers are to take from the story of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice his own child, is that to be faithful, believers are to be willing to surrender their values, their judgment, their reason at the drop of a dime. They are not to become too attached to anything “in this world,” because a supernatural consciousness from “the next world” can at any moment require the believer to turn against it. Again, this is a deity which sat idly by while its own child was being tortured and executed; it could have intervened at any moment to rescue its child, but it chose not to do so. Christianity models the sacrifice of the ideal for the sake of the non-ideal, and the vicious people for whom this sacrifice was made are expected to accept that sacrifice. Christianity enshrines the pursuit of the unearned as the highest ideal possible for man, for the believer cannot earn his salvation (“lest any man should boast” – Eph. 2:9) – it needed to be “bought” for him through blood sacrifice. Someone had to die for the believer to gain. Moreover, the believer is to live his life in fear, but he is not to fear “them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both the soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28). And unlike vicious people who can “kill the body” – people who are real flesh and blood, who use real weapons and cause real harm, the “him which is able to destroy both the soul and body in hell” is something which the believer can only imagine. Indeed, he can only imagine “hell” as well. Thus the believer is to be ruled by his fear of the imaginary. This is the psychology required of the believer by the Christian worldview.
Making one’s surrender of his values and critical faculties possible to begin with is the psychology of guilt which Christianity first needs to inculcate in the believer. Without reducing one’s view of himself to that of a guilt-ridden, depraved and unworthy miscreant, Christianity has no chance of taking hold of a person’s life. But the process of achieving this has been eased by the repeated insistence since our earliest years that selfishness is inherently wicked, evil, and sinful. And since selfishness is essential to living, it’s pretty much guaranteed that anyone who accepts this view of selfishness will feel guilt to some degree. “Don’t be selfish,” we are told over and over again. Why exactly should we not be selfishness? Answers to this question are typically pat and vague, but it’s clear that selfishness is commonly equated with sinfulness, and the implication underlying the condemnation of selfishness is that it somehow deprives others of their values. Thus, it is reasoned, we should be willing to sacrifice. But if other people are willing to sacrifice their values in the first place (such as Abraham and his ready, unquestioning willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac), how can the selfish person really be guilty of depriving others of their values? Then it is implied that selfishness entails the desire to benefit from someone else’s expense. You mean like gaining eternal salvation at the expense of Jesus’ life?
Contradictions of this sort are myriad throughout the Christian worldview, yet they are continually pushed down beneath the surface so that the believer never gets a full grasp of them. Instead, they burrow deep into the believer’s psychology where they fester unresolved, and when hints of their destructive consequences bubble up to the surface, apologists and theologians are waiting ready with “explanations” to drive them back down into the labyrinth where they hide in shadows and lurk behind corners, keeping the believer forever off-balance and on the run.
In their interaction with the world, believers are to be “wise as serpents” for they are sent into the world “as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Mt. 10:16). The imagery here is deliberate and particularly telling. Sheep among wolves are of course in danger of being mutilated and eaten. It is clear that this “God of love” insists on putting its “elect” in harm’s way. It’s viciously dangerous out there, but you are to go regardless. I would never do this with my loved ones, but the god of Christianity has “purposed” it so. Also, the image of the serpent has a long tradition in the Judeo-Christian worldview. The serpent is a deceiver. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent deceived Eve, the woman. Women in the Judeo-Christian mindset are consistently characterized as the weaker sex, easily succumbing to temptation, prone to sexual misconduct, luring men to their doom, etc. Also, in the gospel of Mark, Jesus is frequently portrayed as speaking in riddles which he has to explain to his disciples who have difficulty understanding those riddles (even when others in Jesus’ audience get it the first time around). What is presented to the world and what is reserved for the flock tend to be two different things. Believers are to put a happy face on Christianity before the world to make it appear benevolent and full of hope. The goal here is to attract new converts, so full disclosure of what new converts would be getting themselves into cannot be made. Once new converts are brought into the fold, they are subjected to a never-ending unfolding indoctrination of “wait, there’s more,” none of which was made clear before they signed on the dotted line of confession.
In Christianity, the world is a realm ruled by demons and devils thanks to “the fall” of Adam, and yet, we are told, “God controls whatsoever comes to pass” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 160). In the final analysis, it’s quite difficult if not entirely impossible for the believer to distinguish between their god and the demons and devils which are said to be its adversaries. For the Christian god not only has a master “plan” for human history by which it “controls whatsoever comes to pass,” it is also said to have “a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists” (Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready, p. 172). We are not told what this “morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists” is; indeed, Bahnsen himself confesses that “God does not always (indeed, rarely) provide an explanation to human beings for the evil which they experience or observe” (Ibid., p. 173). But in spite of not knowing what exactly this “reason for the evil which exists” might be, Bahnsen has no qualms passing judgment on it, assessing it as “morally sufficient,” sight unseen!
As prooftext for this confession, Bahnsen quotes (p. 173) Deuteronomy 29:29, which states:
The secret things belong to the Lord our God.
Bahnsen continues (p. 173):
We might not be able to understand God’s wise and mysterious ways, even if He told us (cf. Isa. 55:9). Nevertheless, the fact remains that He has not told us why misery and suffering and injustice are part of His plan for history and for our individual lives.
But the very idea that the Christian god can have “a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists” can only mean that the Christian god is on cozy terms with evil and is not above using evil means to accomplish its ends, mysterious as they may be. Apparently this god does not have a morally sufficient reason for abstaining from using evil means, let alone fully and consistently opposing evil. A moral view which allows for the notion of “a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists” cannot be a morality that is all-good. On an all-good morality, the notion of “a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists” would be a contradiction in terms. But morality in Christianity is not about being consistently and absolutely pro-good and anti-evil. Demons and devils are characterized as inherently evil, consistently seeking evil ends and using whatever evil means they might have at their disposal. But what in principle is the difference between demons and devils so characterized and a god characterized as having “a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists”?
So yes, I would agree – very strongly in fact – that along with god-belief comes a neurotic psychology intended to keep the believer in a state of broken-spiritedness. “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3). I suspect that “the kingdom of heaven” won’t be quite what the brochure advertised.
Christians' (and Blarkians' ad infinitum) description of their deity may very well include what I have said re: divine aseity and simplicity. This doesn't count as a mark against God's existence. It simply means you have more work to do.
If I were to use Objectivist terms as best as I can with respect to God, I would say what Christians hold concerning God is a co-ultimate existence-consciousness, in accordance with Divine Simplicity and Divine Aseity. Ultimately I don't think the Objectivist categories are broad enough to assess God (which means I think any critique from its foundation, as far as I understand it, falls short).
Moreover, it constitutes an outright denial of the very nature of consciousness as a biological attribute. All evidence that we find in reality (i.e., by looking outward at the world) clearly indicates – and without exception – that consciousness is an attribute of some biological organisms and that it requires biological systems which make it possible (e.g., sensory organs, neural paths, a centralized nervous system, etc.). I have already presented numerous facts which uniformly indicate that consciousness is biological in my blog The Biological Nature of Consciousness. Calling the Christian god, which is not even supposed to be a biological organism according to the Christian worldview, a conscious being therefore commits the fallacy of the stolen concept: it applies a concept (‘consciousness’) while denying or ignoring its genetic roots. This is like saying Euclidean geometry is a completely valid field of mathematics while denying the validity of basic arithmetic.
So appeals to theologically invested notions like “Divine Aseity” and “Divine Simplicity” can only be attempts to divert attention away from the essence of my critique in order to derail it without addressing it.
As for whether or not “the Objectivist categories are broad enough to assess God (which means I think any critique from its foundation, as far as I understand it, falls short),” I addressed this in my comment responding to Matthias (on the same blog), in which I stated the following:
I don’t see how “the Objectivists categories” could fail to be “broad enough to assess God.” The categories in question here are the concepts ‘existence’ and ‘consciousness’. The concept ‘existence’ is the widest of all concepts: it includes everything that exists; even if the Christian god existed, this concept would include it. Christians themselves concede that the concept ‘existence’ is broad enough to assess their god when they tell us that their god *exists*. It’s broad enough then, why isn’t it broad enough when considering the relationship between their god as a consciousness and the objects of its consciousness? Similarly with the concept ‘consciousness’: this concept clearly applies since Christians want to confer conscious activity of sorts to their god, such as knowing, planning, reacting, commanding, judging, getting angry, choosing, etc.
So I would say that, if CT affirms that its god (a) exists and (b) is conscious, then these concepts are clearly “broad enough to assess God” and the issue of metaphysical primacy applies (since consciousness always involves an object - conscious of what?).
If Christians maintain that these concepts are still not broad enough to apply to their god, then CT needs to find some new concepts – without making use of these – and provide validation for their meaning and application. But I don’t think that’s going to happen; it would require complete revision of nearly two thousand years of assumptions, texts, rulings, edicts, creeds, church doctrines, etc., and avoiding the use of the concept ‘existence’ is pretty much impossible when trying to speak of anything. Rather, I think you are just not very clear on what the issue of metaphysical primacy is.
If one says “God knows” something, he is making use of the concept ‘know’, and likewise implying its appropriateness in the context intended from the beginning. The bible and its believers habitually apply concepts which were formed by human beings interacting with things they perceive and observe right here on earth, to their god as though there were no question of their suitability. When a person agrees with such claims, there is no challenge to the assumption that they are suitable. But when a critical approach is applied, it is suggested that the concepts which have been used all along are now “not broad enough.” This is just an elaborate form of, “You don’t agree, so the problem must be on your side,” which may sometimes be true. But the context here suggests a high degree of special pleading.
Matthias errs in supposing that we need to find things that “count as a mark against God’s existence” as if claims that it does exist were true by default. Knowledge is not a process of elimination, but of identification and integration based on objective inputs. Thus we need reasons for accepting some item of knowledge into the sum of our knowledge. A claim – especially about something for which we have no alternative but to imagine – is not true by default. The onus of proof is squarely on the theist. If people do not believe it, the theist needs to learn to live with this. If a thinker finds fault with the theist’s efforts to validate his god-belief claims, he has done more than he is obligated to do by the nature of the case (for it is not his claim, and therefore the onus of proof does not belong to him in the first place). If theists have no evidence for their god-belief claims, then they lack rational basis and cannot be accepted as genuine knowledge, and thinkers are right to point this out. If those claims contradict previously validated truths, then they cannot be integrated into the sum of one’s knowledge without contradiction, and thinkers are right to point this out as well.
Moreover, if theists cannot present reasons for their god-belief which can sustain rational scrutiny, then they should accept the fact that their god-belief claims are not rational and therefore not worthy of being accepted as truths.
But if you aren't in a position to adequately assess God's existence (as informed by Christianity), then much less so for all gods that claim (or whose adherents claim) to be like that.
Only on Christianity can one maintain an intelligible, thorough, and consistent worldview, and reject all counterfeit gods. All throughout the Tanakh it is affirmed that there is only one God. Unless you affirm God's existence, you cannot ultimately rule out any of them.
Where can we find a distinctively Christian theory of concepts? I have found no discussion of the nature of concepts or the process by which the human mind forms concepts anywhere in the bible. And yet conceptual knowledge is indispensable to thinking, knowing, assessing truth claims, understanding (even things like what the biblical text records), etc. How can it be that “only on Christianity can one maintain an intelligible, thorough, and consistent worldview” when Christianity does not provide any understanding on the nature of concepts?
The Christian worldview is accepted on faith. The story of Doubting Thomas expressly demonstrates this. But human life requires us to adopt as an absolute the epistemology of reason. Faith and reason are antipodes. Faith requires one to find “knowledge” by looking inward at the contents of his imagination, emotions, wishing, preferences, dreams, etc., while reason is the epistemological process of looking outward at the facts of reality, of identifying them by means of concepts and integrating them into the sum of one’s knowledge without contradiction. There is no compromise between the two just as there is no compromise between food and poison. Faith poisons the mind while reason nourishes it. The choice is that clear. Take your pick.
by Dawson Bethrick