A Reply to Matthias on Subjectivism and the Believer
Of course, subjectivism in metaphysics leads to subjectivism in epistemology. Man’s knowledge needs a source of inputs informing it. How does he acquire these inputs? The objective approach is the epistemological model by which man looks outward at the facts of reality which exist and are what they are independent of his conscious activity. The task of consciousness in this case is to perceive, identify and integrate the facts he discovers by looking outward. This approach is called objective because it rests explicitly on and is guided by the recognition that the objects of consciousness exist and are what they are independent of conscious activity. In terms of the subject-object relationship, then, the objects of consciousness hold metaphysical primacy.
But, as has been indicated so far, and as we shall see confirmed below, the believer does not acquire input for his god-beliefs by looking outward at the world. When we look outward at the world, we do not find any gods or consciousnesses which can zap physical things into existence or alter the identity of objects by an act of will. On the contrary, to find these things, the believer must look inward, consulting the contents of his imagination, his preferences, his wishing, his emotions, etc., and calling it “revelation.” In such a way we find that subjectivism in metaphysics necessitates subjectivism in epistemology.
Below I will explore how subjectivism can manifest itself in the believer’s worldview claims, survey various expressions of subjectivism, and highlight examples from the Christian bible which both model and encourage subjectivism in the believer’s own interaction with reality.
In the conclusion of my blog, I wrote:
In Christianity, we have a worldview which is terminally conflicted with itself given this deep internal antithesis between subject and object. The implication for apologetics is clear: any argument for the existence of god is an argument for the validity subjectivism, essentially the view that wishing makes it so constitutes the final criterion for all knowledge and truth. Because of his worldview’s fundamental commitment to subjectivism, the Christian has no uncompromised basis on which to tell non-believers that 'wishing doesn’t make it so'; he has no choice but to borrow from Objectivism to make such statements. In the final analysis, this is the ultimate reality for the believer: not only does his worldview teach that wishing in fact makes it so, it essentially teaches that only wishing makes it so.
Do you know of many Christians who believe that their own wishing makes something so? Let’s ignore, for the moment, their wishing that Christianity were true (if this simply means the desire that it be true, then doesn't everybody?).
Unfortunately, since the bible itself nowhere provides any explicit teaching on the nature of man’s consciousness or even outlines how one might find out what is true about his consciousness, the entire question about the proper relationship between consciousness and its objects is left entirely unexplored by the Christian worldview. Christianity leaves the whole matter of what consciousness is, how it behaves and what its purpose might be is left completely uncharted.
I have known many, many Christians over my lifetime. Naturally some have been more gung-ho mystics than others; some have quietly identified themselves as Christians and subsequently said little or nothing about their faith or even implied much of any seriousness about the devotion to Christian notions. Others were rarely seen without their bibles and made concerted effort to invoke their Jesus-worship into every breath of conversation. But virtually all of them, across the board, indicated no awareness of the subject-object relationship and its bearing on what they claimed about their religion or pretty much anything else. Whatever view about the relationship between consciousness and its objects could be attributed to them, was taken entirely for granted, unexpressed in any explicit manner, and for essentially not understood. Of course, this lack of awareness on the matter allows for all kinds of inconsistencies to creep in and take over one’s thinking on any matter. And without clear understanding of starting points, the concept of objectivity, the need to base one’s knowledge on facts which we discover by looking outward, stolen concepts, etc., it is very possible for those inconsistencies to multiply themselves and evade detection.
I want to point out that this problem is not restricted only to Christians. In fact, it is a very widespread problem among the human race. Of course, the failure to attend to the subject-object relationship at the fundamental level of one’s worldview is essential to any religious belief system, whether it’s Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. But many non-religious thinkers also suffer from this problem as well, and like their religious counterparts, they are completely unaware of it since even they too have not considered the question: What holds metaphysical primacy: existence, or consciousness? Posing this question to the random person walking on the street would likely get you a very puzzled look and a hasty dismissal, as if you were nuts.
The Christians whom I have known do not typically seem to have the view that their own wishing can create tangible, concrete objects. This would be clearly testable, and if any theist claimed to have such an ability, we could test it. I predict that any theist claiming to have such power would fail any test. Of course, this does not keep thinkers from imagining a supernatural consciousness which does possess such a power. Christians claim that the universe was created by an act of consciousness, and of course we can imagine this. But what objective evidence can they provide to support such a claim? What objective evidence can they produce to support the notion that any consciousness has such a power to begin with? I have seen no evidence for this, but I have seen a lot of excuses for why such evidence is never forthcoming.
But I would say that deep down, lurking in the psychological regions safely out of view, believers performatively assume that their own consciousness is endowed with some special faculty which cannot be scientifically explained (not now or ever), which is certainly not biological in nature, but which provides the believer with some kind of connection to another realm, a realm transcending the natural world. Very often the belief that one possesses such a special faculty begins with belief that others possess it. As Rand poignantly observes in Atlas Shrugged, “Faith in the supernatural begins as faith in the superiority of others.” I think this is true in the immediate sense of the notion that there exist other consciousness(es) superior to one’s own and in the consequent implication that one possesses in his own consciousness some faculty superior to what he originally did not imagine.
Now for those Christians who admit that they want their religious beliefs to be true, that’s well and good. High-profile Christian apologist Mike Licona declared outright “I want it to be true” in a discussion with Gary Habermas and Robert Price (see my blog Mike Licona Says: “I want it to be true”). I don’t think Licona is unique in this sense. After all, the Christian faith is essentially a personal investment of a confessional nature. Christianity requires its believers to devote their entire lives to the god they imagine. In fact, the bible holds up the Old Testament figure Abraham as an exemplary model of faith, who unflinchingly acted in obedience to a command to prepare his own son as a sacrifice to a supernatural being. In Luke 14:26, we are told that anyone who does not hate “his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be [Jesus’] disciple.” The believer is to renounce the world, renounce personal pleasures, renounce selfish pursuits, his own flesh and all passions. As Nicola Tafuri puts it:
Do you want perfect unity with Jesus? Then you must renounce the world. Reading the Gospels, it is clear that He launched many an attack on the world through His words and actions. He condemned it, and even excluded it from His divine prayers. The world then must be seen as a great enemy that you, O Christian, must wholly hate, seeing that it was so hated by the Heart of Jesus, eternal truth and infinite wisdom.
Despise the goods of the world, they contain nothing but seductions and the poison of death. Despise the maxims of the world, they are all false, hollow and contrary to divine law. Think nothing of the hatred of the world, if Jesus Christ was treated as a madman, it is no surprise that His followers are likewise treated. The world is mired in malice, friendship with it means enmity with God, an if you follow the world, you too will become worldly with the worldly, corrupt with the corrupt…therefore despise it all, so as to be able to say with St Paul, the world is dead to me and I am dead to the world. (TO LIVE IN UNITY WITH JESUS WE MUST RENOUNCE THE WORLD (ST PAUL: “THE WORLD IS DEAD TO ME AND I AM DEAD TO THE WORLD”))
Thus if a believer commits himself in such a manner, no doubt he will be motivated to hope that he’s not done so in vain. The apostle Paul writes in I Cor. 15:14-17, “if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain... if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.” Of course, what person who has already accepted the premises that he is innately depraved, that he is inherently guilty simply by being human, and that if he should die in that state he will suffer for all eternity, will want to remain “in [his] sins”?
So strong motivation to hope that the Christian devotional program is all true is indeed strongly encouraged by that very devotional program. If an individual invests himself confessionally in that program, he is not going to want his sacrifices to be “in vain.” He’s going to want that his actions of devotion and sacrifice were premised on certainties that are true. Thus psychologically there is more than merely a spark of “hoping makes it so” in just this sense, which is not essentially different from “wishing makes it so.” Indeed, the bible itself associates faith with hoping (cf. Heb. 11:1).
Of course, we should not forget that the bible itself contains references which, on a plain reading, clearly indicate that the conscious activity of the believer can either alter or at any rate override the constraints we find in reality. I will cite five such examples.
First, we have the incident recorded in Matthew where Peter walks on unfrozen water. Here is the relevant passage (14:25-32):
And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear. But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid. And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased.
My second example comes from Matthew 17:14-21, which states:
And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him, and saying, Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatick, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water. And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him. Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him hither to me. And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour. Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out? And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.
Next we have a passage from the gospel of John, where the following words are put into Jesus’ mouth (14:12-14):
Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.
There are several passages in the gospels where Jesus restores eyesight to blind persons. Now I am not blind, but I have needed corrective lenses since I was about nine years old. My eyesight has gotten progressively worse over the years. In fact, about every two years (I’m in my later forties now), I need to get new lenses with stronger vision correction. Without my eyeglasses, things 10 feet away are quite blurry now. My eyesight is getting worse. Given promises such as we find in John 14 and precedents of Jesus healing blind people, this should be a snap for Jesus’ faithful followers. So some years ago, atheist blogger Anthony Kinney posted Operation: Pray Dawson's Way to 20/20 Vision asking Christians with a direct pipeline to the supernatural to pray for my eyesight to improve. This was back in August of 2006 – over seven years ago now! Sadly, either no Christians have undertaken to pray on behalf of my eyesight, or if they have their prayer requests were not fulfilled as promised in the above passage, for my eyes have only gotten worse since August 2006. Perhaps Matthias is the real McCoy and will finally get an effective response from the Christian deity on this matter.
The fourth example comes from James 5:14-16, which states:
Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
Lastly I come to the doctrine of “salvation by faith.” This is one of the more important doctrines for the believer personally, for this is what devotion is ultimately supposed to be all about for him: his “eternal salvation.” For this example I quote Romans 10:8-13, which states:
The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach; That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
So there’s clear and emphatic affirmation of the primacy of consciousness throughout the bible, and in many ways the plain reading of the text unmistakably suggests that believers are to expect their consciousness to hold some metaphysical sway over reality, whether it’s altering the interaction of substances (such as Peter walking on water as a result of having faith and not doubting), commanding mountains to cast themselves into the sea, doing works greater than those attributed to Jesus in the gospels as a result of “believing” on Jesus, healing the sick or believing one’s way to salvation.
I don’t agree with that, and Christians understand their own belief to mean that whatever God says is true regardless of their wishing.
I have pointed out for years that, in spite of the biblical worldview having nothing to say about the proper relationship between consciousness and its objects, Christians in fact assume the primacy of existence principle performatively - i.e., in the very act of affirming a claim as truth. We all do. The primacy of existence is inescapably true. The contradiction occurs when the content of what is claimed assumes the primacy of consciousness. This simply means that the act of making a claim and the content of that claim are neither consistent nor compatible in terms of their metaphysical and epistemological orientations. The act makes use of the primacy of existence while the content assumes the primacy of consciousness.
In an online presentation titled Objective Reality, Dr. David Kelley makes this very point (26:56 – 28:12):
As a way to confirm that the primacy of existence is a fundamental axiomatic truth, notice that even if you try to deny it, you end up affirming it. Suppose someone asserts the opposing view, the primacy of consciousness. He says the existence or identity of things depends on our consciousness of them. Well, does he think that his statement is true? That it’s something he knows to be the case? Then by his own thesis, his statement is made true only by his own consciousness, the fact that he’s thinking it to be true. That’s obviously not what he intends, right? When he claims that the objects of knowledge depend on the knower, he’s asserting this as an actual truth about the nature of consciousness and objects. In the same way, when he claims that the primacy of existence is false, he’s saying that those who believe in the primacy of existence are wrong; they have failed to grasp the real objective nature of existence and consciousness. In another words, someone who asserts the primacy of consciousness in any form, is asserting it as a fact that does not itself depend on consciousness, even though he is claiming that there are no such facts. So he’s contradicting himself.
However, pace Kelley, the Christian does intend that his god’s claims are made true by its own consciousness, by its own thinking that something is true, by simply declaring whatever content it affirms is true. Of course, this could only mean that truth as such is ultimately subjective on the Christian worldview, for truth is whatever the Christian god says is true. But this is in essence precisely what Christianity teaches. Several quotes from Bahnsen’s Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis make this very clear:
The believer understands that truth fundamentally whatever conforms to the mind of God (cf. Ps. 111:7-8; John 14:6; 16:13). (p. 163)
God’s “thought content” actively makes these things so (i.e., actively makes the truth), while man’s “thought content” does not (being passive with regard to the truth. (p. 227n.152)
He is and He makes the truth that man comes to know. (p. 230)
1. the personal primacy of consciousness
2. the social primacy of consciousness, and
3. the cosmic primacy of consciousness.
When a person seeks to evade a fact because he resents its implications for something he prefers to believe, this is an example of the personal primacy of consciousness. When the Soviet leadership would say “The citizens of the USSR are happy, well-fed and free,” in spite of years of famine, destitution and stagnation, this is an example of the social primacy of consciousness. When Christianity affirms that a supernatural consciousness wished the universe into existence, this is an example of the cosmic primacy of consciousness. In each case we find the same essential orientation between consciousness and its objects: the object of consciousness are thought to conform to the dictates of consciousness.
Determining whether or not your worldview affirms the primacy of consciousness is very simple. Simply ask:
According to your worldview, does reality conform to conscious intensions (that’s anyone’s conscious intensions – whether yours or someone else’s), or not?
So how would we discover that this is the case by looking outward? How would we be able to apply an objective method of knowledge to discover that knowledge is ultimately subjective? How could we apply an objective method of determining the nature of reality and discover that reality is at root subjective?
In my blog The Axioms and the Primacy of Existence, I raised concern over how an individual thinker who acknowledges the primacy of existence as the proper relationship between his own consciousness and the world of facts, can generate the notion of a consciousness which enjoys the opposite orientation. I asked:
So what inputs inform the theist's concept of consciousness beyond his own firsthand experience such that he thinks it is meaningful to suppose that there exists a consciousness possessing the exact opposite relationship that his consciousness has with its own objects? What gives his concept of consciousness such latitude? What units has he discovered and integrated into his concept of consciousness which allows him to affirm two contradictory metaphysics? We know already that the method by which he informs his concept of consciousness must be consistent with the nature of his consciousness, for he has no alternative to using his own consciousness in developing and securing the knowledge he seeks to hold. So this rules out his own use of the primacy of consciousness as a means of arriving at a point where he can reasonably affirm the primacy of consciousness. For instance, since the primacy of existence applies to his own conscious interaction with the world around him, he cannot reasonably adopt a method of affirming the primacy of consciousness which reduces to the assumption that reality conforms to his conscious operations. Not only would this be fallaciously circular, it would short-circuit the nature of his own consciousness and invalidate any conclusion he wants to draw. He cannot, for instance, rationally say that the primacy of consciousness is valid because he wants it to be valid, for his consciousness does not have the power to alter reality; his wants and wishes are ineffectual.
Bahnsen himself states that
Christians cannot be satisfied with intellectually lazy and ultimately subjective beliefs. They must offer proof for what they assert about God, man, salvation, etc. How can this be done? (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 262)
So what objective inputs from reality can substantiate the notion of a consciousness which can create its own objects by an act of will, zap physical things into existence by an act of will, alter their identity by an act of will, “make the truth” by an act of will, and “control whatsoever comes to pass” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 160) by an act of will?
Bahnsen tells us that:
God can only be known by a voluntary revelation by the Son and Spirit of God (Matt. 11:27; 1 Cor. 2:10)... The understanding which the believer lacks can only be provided when his mind has been opened (e.g., Luke 24:45) and has been convicted by the Spirit of Truth (John 16:8)... One can only come to a knowledge of Him who is Truth (John 14:6) when the Son grants him the understanding which is lacking (1 John 5:20). (Always Ready, p. 85; italics original)
1. There are no objective inputs which can legitimately inform one’s understanding of consciousness such that the notion of a consciousness which can create its own objects, zap physical things into existence, alter the identify of objects, “make the truth,” and “control whatsoever comes to pass,” all by an act of will, has an objective basis; one does not acquire evidence for the existence of such a consciousness by looking outward - rather, one must look inward for this, consulting the contents of his imagination, his feelings, his wishes, his preferences, etc., and call it “revelation”;
2. Such “knowledge” and “understanding” as Bahnsen calls it must be impose on the believer by force - i.e., by a supernatural being imposing its will on the mind of the believer (as characterized by Christianity itself) and insisting that the believer call whatever it installs in his mind “knowledge” and “understanding,” even though he has no objective input to inform it and indeed must ignore facts that he discovers whenever he looks outward at the world, all of which confirms Rand’s observation that “faith and force are corollaries” (Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 66)
If Christians believe that only God can wish something into existence, then it’s not a true “subjectivism” they’re holding, is it?
In fact, since everything we find in the world, in the universe, in reality, is said to be a creation which the Christian god essentially wished into existence, even from man’s perspective (man on this view also being a “creation” that was wished into existence), subjectivism is the ultimate metaphysical precondition of the reality we know, according to Christianity.
Yes, Christians are explicit in their insistence that the reality we inhabit is a creation - a product of some conscious activity. For example, consider the following statements in Greg Bahnsen’s Pushing the Antithesis:
God and God alone defines the world and reality. (p. 61)
…the personal, sovereign God of Scripture created all things and gave them their properties. (pp. 151-152)
…the very idea of God’s speaking reality into existence itself requires rationality. (pp. 153-154)
...in theism, there’s a sense in which reality is subjective - based on the divine mind
Of course, we never observe any consciousness creating physical objects by means of conscious activity. I have never witnessed this. I have never witnessed, for example, someone wishing a bicycle, a house, a pile of cash, a sack full of diamonds, or a human being, into existence. Indeed, it seems that if there were such a consciousness, all our troubles would be over. But our troubles are not over, and our needs, our fragility, our mortality as biological organisms have not vanished from this “created reality.”
If there are Christians who hold that their own wishing is "creative," we can both understand they’re simply incorrect.
Very simply, according to the Biblical witness: “The Lord God omnipotent reigneth” (Rev. 19:6). Therefore, in terms of the Christian worldview, there is nothing “too hard” for God to do according to His own holy will (Gen. 18:14). Because of who He is, “with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26; cf. Mark 14:36). Nothing can stay His hand or prevent Him from accomplishing what He wishes. (Always Ready, p. 226)
by Dawson Bethrick