A Reply to Matthias on Philosophical Starting Points
In the present entry, the discussion focuses on starting points. In his comment Matthias indicated what Christians take to be their starting point, and I will contrast this with Objectivism’s starting point after defining relevant criteria which a worldview’s starting point must meet in order to be a proper starting point. I explain how Objectivism’s starting point (the axiom ‘existence exists’) in fact meets all of these criteria, and we will see how the starting point attributed by Matthias to the Christian worldview fails to meet same these criteria. Then it will be shown how Christians must in fact assume the truth of Objectivism’s starting point while taking it completely for granted.
So onwards and upwards, as they say.
I can think of one way, immediately, in which our approaches to concepts differ. As Christians, we begin with a description of God as set forth in the Bible. We begin with what the Bible plainly says about nature, reality, even God’s intent in creating. It is from there, (if we’re being consistent, granted) with those things as a given, that we begin to surmise concepts of existence.
to think or infer without certain or strong evidence; conjecture; guess.
So if being a Christian and going by what the bible has to say as an authority on one’s worldview are any indication of Matthias’ approach to concepts, I can already expect that our approaches – his and mine – radically differ from each other. My worldview affirms the objective theory of concepts, while his... well, seems to offer nothing on the matter. At any rate, Matthias does not say anything specifically relating to concept theory here to begin with. However, he does give an indication of what Christians take as their philosophical starting point. And since the starting point to knowledge is also important, I will address this matter in the present entry. (In my previous blog entry responding to Matthias, I gave some brief pointers on the nature of concepts. Of course, for a fuller explanation of the objective theory of concepts, I refer readers to Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.)
So in regard to one’s ultimate philosophical starting point, let us ask: Why would one “begin with a description of God as set forth in the Bible”? Why start there? One could only understand those descriptions if one already had understanding of the concepts informing those descriptions. So to say that one starts with such descriptions strikes me as completely untrue. Indeed, just to grasp the statement (let alone affirm it as truth) that “God exists,” one would first need to understand the concept ‘exists’.
The issue of the starting point of one’s worldview is of course extremely important. In fact, since one’s worldview depends on the reliability of its starting point, it is make or break. So let’s make some initial observations about the requirements that a proper starting point would need to fulfill.
First of all, a proper starting point must be true. For obvious reasons, it would not do to build one’s worldview on a false or arbitrary basis. If one’s starting point is not true, the worldview which rests on it could not itself be said to be true. Of course, while a theory delineating what constitutes a truth is something that a worldview should hash out, such a theory cannot be made in a vacuum – i.e., without example truths which inform that theory. So even here, while a theory of what constitutes truth is of course very important, it would not be our starting point. We need truths which would inform such a theory and to which it would correspond in the first place. The truth of a starting point would be one of the truths which informs such a theory. But generally thinkers recognize that truth as such is not an isolated, contextless quality that has no basis in reality and which obtains apart from the subject-object relationship. The concept of truth implies that a mind is involved. Truth is an aspect of identification, specifically the identification of fact. We do not say that a rock is true; rather, we say that statements about a rock are either true or not true, where statements are propositions affirming some identification. So a true statement would have to be some statement about something in reality (i.e., something which exists, something which is real) which accurately identifies that something. In other words, truths correspond to facts, where “facts” are entities (i.e., real things that actually exist) in specific contexts (e.g., the Empire State Building is located in Manhattan; George Washington was born in 1732; violins are a type of musical instrument, etc.).
Second, since the starting point of one’s worldview would have to be true, as we saw above, that starting point would therefore have to be objective. Objectivity is contrasted with subjectivism. The difference between the two reduces to the orientation between the subject of consciousness and its object(s). The objective orientation rests on the recognition that the objects of consciousness exist and are what they are independent of the subject of consciousness - i.e., that the objects of consciousness do not conform to the content of consciousness, but rather inform the content of consciousness. The subjective orientation would be any approach in which the objects are thought to arise from and/or conform to the content of consciousness – i.e., in which the subject of consciousness holds metaphysical primacy over its objects. Thus a proper starting point, to be true, must be objective in nature, meaning that it must be based on facts which obtain independently of conscious activity. This means, among other things, that a worldview’s proper starting point, to be true, could not be premised in one’s desires, wishing, feelings, likes or dislikes, preferences, imagination, dreams, or any other conscious activity characterized by looking inward. We need to look outward to find the objective basis of our truths, including most importantly our starting point.
Third, a proper starting point must be a fundamental starting point. A genuinely fundamental starting point could only be a starting point that does not rest on prior or more fundamental assumptions or premises. Thus a genuinely fundamental starting point must be conceptually irreducible - it cannot rest on conceptualizations that come before it. This means that the concepts which inform a proper, genuinely fundamental starting point cannot be concepts which are themselves defined in terms of prior or more fundamental concepts, for then they would be assuming the truth of more basic conceptualized definitions. Rather, the concepts inform a genuinely fundamental starting point would have to be axiomatic in nature. Axiomatic concepts are unique in the sense that they are defined ostensively rather than in terms of more fundamental concepts. Some concept must be conceptually irreducible, and a genuinely fundamental starting point must essentially be the affirmation of the truth of that concept, which is axiomatic in nature.
Fourth, a genuinely fundamental starting point would have to correspond with or identify something of which we are directly aware; in other words, it could be something which we would have to infer from things that we are directly aware of. If we are inferring something, then the premises from which we are making that inference are logically more fundamental than the conclusion we are inferring. So a proper starting point could not be a conclusion of an inference. It must be self-evident. And given our starting point’s requirement to be objective, we must discover the self-evident basis of our starting point by looking outward at reality (as opposed to looking inward to the contents of our wishes, imagination, feelings, preferences, etc.). Man’s means of looking outward at the facts of reality is perception. Perception is man’s mode of awareness which gives him direct awareness of existents as entities. Since perception gives man awareness of a huge context of input from reality, perception gives us direct awareness of facts - i.e., entities in specific contexts. When I see my car parked in my drive way, I see my car parked in my driveway - i.e., an entity in a specific context. Thus a genuinely fundamental starting point which is objective in nature would have to denote a fact that is perceptually self-evident.
Fifth, a starting point must be a starting point to knowledge, which implies that it would need to be general enough in nature to be implicit in all knowledge. In other words, a proper starting point to knowledge would need to correspond to some universal truth. But what could this be? Consider first what knowledge is: true knowledge is the conceptualization of what is real. Knowledge, then, is knowledge of reality. Thus implicit in all knowledge is the premise that what is known is knowledge about things that are real. Knowledge, then, is knowledge of existence.
This last criterion already hints at a worthy candidate for the proper starting point of knowledge and therefore of one’s worldview – the concept ‘existence’. Since knowledge is knowledge of reality, i.e., of things which exist, the concept ‘existence’ is already implicit throughout all one’s knowledge (even in the case of beliefs that are not true, even in the case of notions of what is not real, since the thinker holding such beliefs and forming such notions is real). But does the concept ‘existence’ meet all the other requirements?
For example, is the statement “existence exists” (a single-term axiom consisting of one concept, the concept ‘existence’) true? Yes, it is true: it is true that things exist, that reality exists, that existence exists. The concept ‘existence’ includes everything which exists, even things which exist but which we have not yet discovered as well as those things which we will never discover.
Is the concept ‘existence’ objective? Specifically, do we discover its factual content and consequently its truth by looking outward or by looking inward? Naturally, when we look outward, we have awareness of things which exist. So the concept ‘existence’ denotes things objectively - i.e., it denotes a fact which obtains independently of conscious activity. To test this, we could deny the existence of the things we find when we look outward at reality, but we find that they still exist in spite of our denial!
Next let us ask: is the concept ‘existence’ conceptually irreducible? In fact it is conceptually irreducible: since the definitions of concepts would have to make reference to things which exist in order for those definitions to be true, there could be no concepts which are more fundamental than the concept ‘existence’, for to what would their definitions make reference if not to something that exists? The concept ‘existence’ can only be defined ostensively - i.e., by looking outward at reality and essentially saying “I mean all of this.”
Fourth, let us ask: does the concept ‘existence’ denote something that we directly perceive? In fact it does: when we look outward at reality with the means by which we can look outward - i.e., by means of perception - we perceive things which exist - i.e., the independently existing contents informing the concept ‘existence’. So indeed the truth of the affirmation ‘existence exists’ is perceptually self-evident.
Fifth, since the truth of a proper starting point to knowledge should be implicit in all of one’s knowledge, we should ask if the concept ‘existence’ (and the affirmation of its truth ‘existence exists’) is implicit in all of our knowledge. It would seem undeniably so, since true knowledge is knowledge of things which are real, i.e., of things which exist – i.e., of existence. When we say “X is true,” we do not mean that “X” here is a statement about something that does not exist. What kind of statement could we call “true” when it pertains to something that is not real? Indeed, what could be more universal than existence? In fact, the concept ‘universe’ denotes the sum total of all that exists. So it can be easily argued that no concept could be more universal than the concept ‘existence’.
All of these points suggest one last criterion which serves as a final test of our starting point, namely the fact that the truth of an objective, self-evident and genuinely fundamental starting point that is implicit in all of one’s knowledge would have to be assumed in any attempt to deny its truth. Does the concept ‘existence’ meet this test? Well, let’s give it the ol’ college try and see how far we get: let’s deny the fact that existence exists. But is it not the case that we would have to exist in order to do this? Would we not need to assume that at least the statement ‘existence exists’ exists – at least as a mental item which we can consider – in order to affirm such a denial? Clearly we cannot deny the concept ‘existence’ without at least performatively contradicting ourselves. This is quite unlike a denial of the statement that George Washington was born in 1732; we can deny this without performatively contradicting ourselves. This does not mean that our denial of such a fact could therefore be true. Rather, since the fact that George Washington was born in a specific year is not fundamental and implicit in all knowledge, such a denial would not have to assume its truth in the act of denying it.
So there we have it: all indicators are that Objectivism is entirely correct in affirming the axiom ‘existence exists’ as the proper starting point to knowledge. Given its inherent objectivity, it effectively slashes off entire categories of arbitrary and useless notions, notions that are not true, notions which are ultimately premised in wishing, emotions, imagination, dreaming, etc.
So, to sum up, the proper starting point for a worldview suitable to man’s nature and the world in which he exists would have to meet these requirements:
- it is incontestably true - it is objective (based on facts)
- it is conceptually irreducible
- it denotes a perceptually self-evident fact (known by looking outward as opposed to looking inward)
- it is universal (implicit in all knowledge)
- one would have to assume its truth even in an attempt to deny it
For more discussion on the proper starting point for knowledge and one’s worldview, see also my blog entry RazorsKiss on the Christian God as the Basis of Knowledge – Part 2: RK's Axioms.
The Objectivist starting point, then, is the fundamental recognition that existence exists - i.e., that things exist, that reality exists, that the sum of everything that exists (whatever that may be). This recognition is axiomatic in that it meets the criteria laid out above: it is true, it is objective, it Is conceptually irreducible, it is perceptually self-evident, it is implicit in all knowledge (i.e., universal), and its truth must be assumed in any attempt to deny it.
Contrast this with what Matthias affirms as Christianity’s starting point:
a description of God as set forth in the Bible… what the Bible plainly says about nature, reality, even God’s intent in creating.
So I think already Christianity’s proposed starting point is off to a bad start: it is neither perceptually self-evident nor is it objective.
Also, there is every indication here that Christianity’s proposed starting point is not conceptually irreducible. The Christian starting point as Matthias characterizes it consists of descriptions which we find in a written text. In turn descriptions consist of propositions – statements which do the describing. Propositions and statements, however, are not conceptually irreducible; on the contrary, they consist of entire series of concepts strung together in a more or less coherent manner. Consider the following example:
Bill is a locksmith who was born in Tennessee and now lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side.
“a person who makes or repairs locks and keys.”
Such is the nature of concepts – they are hierarchically ordered because they are formed by a process which builds concepts out of more fundamental concepts. Consider the point Peikoff makes on this matter in his book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (p. 130):
Human knowledge is not like a village of squat bungalows, with every room huddling down against the earth’s surface. Rather, it is like a city of towering skyscrapers, with the uppermost story of each building resting on the lower ones, and they on the still lower, until one reaches the foundation, where the builder started. The foundation supports the whole structure by virtue of being in contact with solid ground.
Nor can the Christian legitimate say that the description of the Christian god given in the bible is universal in nature. According to what the bible teaches, the Christian god must be a single particular (“one God”), and by its very nature a description of an entity (whether it’s Tom’s new sports car or the Christian god) is intended to distinguish that entity from all other entities. Even the statement “cars exist” is vastly more broad than the affirmation “the God of the Bible exists,” since the unqualified plural noun ‘cars’ is entirely open-ended – including all cars which exist now, which have existed in the past and which will exist in the future. This could not be said if there were only one car.
Given this, there is every indication that the Christian notion of “God” could not be implicit in all knowledge. Since concepts which unite concrete entities which we find in the world by looking outward (such as the concept ‘tree’ or ‘car’) are formed on the basis of perceptual input (i.e., on the basis of direct awareness), there is no intervening step allowing for the insertion of some cosmic being which we do not perceive to involve itself as a conceptual necessity in forming such concepts. Thus such concepts do not conceptually “presuppose” the Christian god. Only by imagining certain things (such as that the Christian god not only exists, but also created all the material out of which trees and cars and other concrete entities are formed) could one say this. And yet, since this would be ignoring the fundamental distinction between reality and imagination, it would fail the test of objectivity and thus need to be rejected.
So things are not looking good at all for Christianity’s proposed starting point.
Lastly, we come to the final test: must we assume the truth of Christianity’s proposed starting point in its very denial? All indicators surveyed up to this point consistently and absolutely tell us, No, this is not the case. Presuppositionalists of course assert that denial of their god’s existence is self-refuting. But all efforts to validate this notion ultimately reduce to the looking inward model of knowledge, involving some form of the claim that all of the non-believer’s is supposedly “due to his unacknowledged dependence upon the suppressed truth about God within him” which “renders the unbeliever intellectually schizophrenic” (Bahnsen, Always Ready, p. 78). These are mere assertions which illicitly assume the notion that looking inward for objective knowledge is legitimate epistemological practice, entirely in keeping with the notion that “wishing makes it so.” In fact, this is not rational and therefore not legitimate epistemological practice.
In fact, what Matthias states here does not seem at all consistent with what we find in the presuppositionalist literature regarding the necessity of a starting point that is universal in nature. In his book Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, Bahnsen writes:
Van Til uses the term “universal” for any truth of a general or abstract nature – whether it be a broad concept, law, principle, or categorical statement. Such general truths are used to understand, organize, and interpret particular truths encountered in concrete experience. As Van Til goes on to say, if one does not begin with some such general truths (universals) with which to understand the particular observations in one’s experience, those factual particulars would be unrelated and uninterpretable – i.e., “brute.” (p. 38n.10)
In a radio discussion with atheist philosopher George H. Smith, Smith asks Bahnsen (51:57-58):
Is God an abstraction, Greg?
Uh, no, God is a personal, non-physical being.
Propositions, principles, truths, etc., are not beings possessing consciousnesses of their own. At most, the Christian god would be one particular among many things that exist, including stars, planets, asteroids, rocks, mountains, water crystals, trees, rivers, cars, radios, boots, etc., etc., etc. Thus, according to what Bahnsen states here, even if one believes the claim “God exists,” this would not be a general principle, but at best a particular truth, and consequently “starting with God” would deprive the believer of a general principle capable of uniting everything at the outset.
(Of course, I disagree with the notion implied in Bahnsen's passage that, "if one does not begin with some such general truths (universals) with which to understand the particular observations in one’s experience, those factual particulars would be unrelated." Since existence exists independent of consciousness, per the primacy of existence, if two things which exist are related somehow, they are related regardless of whether we (or anyone else) "begin with some general truths" or with something else. If there exists a planet orbiting a star on the outskirts of some constellation we can barely observe from earth, its relationship to that star obtains whether anyone observes it or not, whether anyone has a "universal" by which to integrate what he observes, etc. Thus we can see how deeply engrained the primacy of consciousness is throughout Bahnsen's thinking when he makes statements implicitly denying the objectivity of relationships and "relatedness" in reality.)
Now what objection could the apologist, going by what Bahnsen states above, raise against the Objectivist axiom of existence? I have seen a number of attempts to undermine or even reject the Objectivist axiom of existence, but such denials entail the claim that existence does not exist, which is clearly false. Indeed, one would have to exist in order to dispute the fact of existence to begin with, and people proposing the axiom of existence as the proper philosophical starting point would also have to exist in order for the proposal to be on the table to begin with. So this will not get anyone very far. But what choice to Christians have?
Describing the proper apologetic methodology, Bahnsen states (Always Ready, p. 77):
what is needed is not piecemeal replies, probabilities, or isolated evidences but rather an attack upon the underlying presuppositions of the unbeliever’s system of thought.
Bahnsen goes on to say (p. 79):
The unbeliever’s espoused presuppositions should be forcefully attacked
But such declarations of fundamental antithesis are not isolated. In the book Pushing the Antithesis: The Apologetic Methodology of Greg L. Bahnsen, we find the following statement (p. 96):
The Christian worldview does not simply differ with unbelieving worldviews at some points, but absolutely conflicts with it across the board on all points.Thus when Objectivism affirms as a fundamental recognition the fact that there is a reality, the Christian worldview "absolutely conflicts with" this. When Objectivism recognizes that man's wishing doesn't make it so, the Christian worldview "absolutely conflicts with" this. When Objectivism recognizes that man needs values in order to live, the Christian worldview "absolutely conflicts with" this. Perhaps we may be forgiven for supposing that the apologetic methodology advanced by presuppositionalists in defense of the Christian worldview is informed with the express attitude of contradicting non-Christians for the sake of contradicting them, for their strategist-in-chief makes it clear that they are to adopt such an attitude.
So let’s turn to the bible itself now. What does it have to say about the starting point of knowledge? The clearest and most explicit statement on this that I can find in the bible is Proverbs 1:7, which states:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge
Moreover, since the “fear” indicated here is “fear of the Lord,” which can only mean fear of something that one must imagine. Again, Christian apologist Cornelius Van Til's words of his own conversion experience are instructive (from his paper Why I Believe in God):
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.
So all indicators are that the Christian starting point for knowledge requires us to look inward into the contents of our own consciousness, whether it is our wishing, our imagination, our dreaming, our emotions, etc., rather than look outward at the world to discover and identify the facts of reality. Of course, this procedure itself is riddled with stolen concepts for one’s consciousness could have no content prior to looking outward at the world in the first place. Emotions, for instance, are reactions to things we learn with respect to their implications to our values; imagination is the selective rearrangement of things we have perceived or observed into images in our minds; wishing is essentially focused desire for some state of affairs that does not presently obtain; etc. So any prescribed starting point which requires one to look inward to grasp it is fallacious from the very start given this fundamental reversal. Things only get worse as we recognize that the looking inward model of fixing one’s philosophical starting point can only result in subjective affirmations.
by Dawson Bethrick