How Bahnsen Gives Away the Farm in His Debate with Gordon Stein
Presuppositionalists make explicit appeals to products of human psychological activity, such as concepts, laws, propositions, etc., and make claims to the effect that they do not change and are not subject to space and time. Because of these attributes, theists associate such phenomena with the supernatural. They even go so far as to treat products of human psychological activity as though they were entities existing independent of human cognition, perhaps floating in the air or in some other dimension, and somehow they are pressed into our passive consciousnesses by means of supernatural force.
Often Christian apologists will interrogate non-Christians on whether they think everything that exists is “material” or physical. The underlying implication of such questions is that the theist has mind-independent phenomena in mind here. But then they quickly shift focus, perhaps for some apologetic expedience, to things which are mind-dependent. This becomes apparent when theists raise as examples things like truth, universals, mathematics, the laws of logic, etc.
Presumably both theists and atheists agree that human beings exist and that they perform a variety of actions. Human beings possess consciousness, and consciousness is a type of activity which human beings perform. That is the Objectivist view: consciousness is essentially a type of activity, and the performers of this type of activity are the biological organisms which possess the ability to be conscious. If that’s the case, then we have the entity in question when we talk about the metaphysical make-up of psychological phenomena like concepts, laws, propositions, etc. And that entity in question is man. And the last I checked, man is a biological organism, complete with a physical body, a physical flesh and bones, physical sense organs, physical nervous system, physical brain, etc.
Concepts and ideas are not independently existing entities. They are the form in which human beings categorize and integrate what they perceive. Metaphysically, they are a type of activity. Thinking, differentiating, identifying, integrating, conceptualizing, forming ideas, etc., are all types of action, and the entity which performs this action is man. Consciousness, too, is not an independently existing entity – it is a type of activity performed by an entity, again namely man (as well as other animals). So to ask whether concepts, laws, propositions, etc., are physical or something else, misses some fundamental points, namely that these are not independently existing entities, that they are a type of activity, and that they are performed by an entity, namely man, about which we know many things – such as the fact that man is a biological organism, a physical being.
What’s curious, indeed telling, about the presuppositionalists’ approach here, is the fact that apologists of this camp frequently cite psychological phenomena – “concepts, laws, propositions, etc.,” – as examples of things that are not physical, not material. It should be clear by now that I think it’s a mistake to treat these things as though they were mind-independent entities and ignore the fact that they are essentially a type of activity performed by a mind-independent entity, namely man. But what’s also key here is the fact that they do not cite anything other than psychological phenomena as examples or evidence of things that are not physical. Apologists might expand this list to include ideas, absolutes, universals, thoughts, etc. But this would be unhelpful: they would still simply be citing more psychological phenomena as examples of things that are not physical. (I have already argued that consciousness as such is biological here.)
What about things that we imagine? Are they physical or non-physical? If I imagine a dragon lounging in my driveway, is that dragon physical or non-physical? Clearly it could not be physical, right? Why could we not say it’s non-physical, like other psychological phenomena? Apologists want to say that ideas are non-physical. So when I form the idea of a dragon lounging in my driveway, this is an idea, isn’t it? Is it somehow disqualified from the presuppositionalists’ examples of “the non-physical” or “the immaterial”? I have already exposed one Christian apologist's telling admission that the immaterial is really imaginary.
If ideas generally are not physical, then it seems that any specific idea we have would be an example of a non-physical being, correct? So if I form the idea of a dragon in my driveway, this idea would be a non-physical being according to apologists’ “presuppositions,” wouldn’t it? So in fact, along with the presuppositionalists’ concepts, laws, propositions, etc., we should include things we imagine as well, shouldn’t we? After all, I would think that presuppositionalists’ would readily agree that the dragon I imagine in my driveway is not a physical being, wouldn’t they?
Since apologists cite different kinds of examples of “non-physical beings” when they point to psychological phenomena, typically ending their list of samples with “etc.,” they imply that there are other examples that they have not specified. So I would suggest that one of those unspecified examples would be the products of imagination. This seems quite appropriate to me, especially since imagination is a psychological phenomenon and all the examples which apologists cite as examples of non-physical being are in fact psychological phenomena. And I presume that we would all agree that the dragon I imagine in my driveway is not a physical entity.
The implications of this for Christianity in general, and presuppositionalism in particular, are not very promising, to put it mildly.
Let’s examine a case in point. In their famous debate, Christian apologist Bahnsen and Dr. Gordon Stein had a back-and-forth that’s become quite well known among presuppositionalists regarding “immaterial entities.” Here’s an excerpt from the debate:
Stein: Dr. Bahnsen, would you call God material or immaterial?
Stein: What is something that's immaterial?
Bahnsen: Something not extended in space.
Stein: Can you give me any other example, other than God, that's immaterial?
Bahnsen: The laws of logic.
But concepts, as I have pointed out, are not mind-independent entities. Concepts are formed by an active conscious process; essentially, I have argued, concepts are a type of activity, and the performers of this activity are human beings, a species of biological organism. (Objections to the effect that this reduces logical norms to subjective preference fail to take into account the nature of the objective theory of concepts on which my view is based; such objections are likely expressions of projections on the part of Christian apologists, whose worldview of course is premised on the primacy of consciousnes metaphysics and has no theory of concepts to begin with – see here and here respectively.)
Thus, going back to my point above, Bahnsen cites a type of psychological phenomenon in response to Stein’s question “Can you give me another example, other than God, that’s immaterial?” Essentially, if the laws of logic are conceptual in nature as I have argued, then Bahnsen cites as an example of “immaterial entities” something formulated by the human mind.
If we asked Bahnsen whether or not things we imagine are material or immaterial (or physical or non-physical), how would Bahnsen answer? I suspect he would quickly try to disqualify the question so as not to allow imaginary things into the immaterial/non-physical category, for clearly he could not group them with physical/material things. That would be simply too close for comfort. Either that, or I suspect he would try to redirect the discussion precisely because such a question hits too close to a vital nerve.
Now, I would grant that we all have the ability to imagine a “non-physical” or “immaterial” being. (Presumably apologists would grant this as well, but only when they are not trying to guard their statements.) For instance, I could imagine a non-physical/immaterial dragon in my driveway. I could even say that its non-physical nature explains why no one can see it! No one can see a non-physical/immaterial being, right? Of course not. An entity would presumably need to be material or physical in order to reflect light rays and thus be visible. Since the dragon that I imagine in my driveway is immaterial/non-physical, then, it’s invisible.
So if someone doubts the reality of the dragon in my driveway because it cannot be seen, well, we have an answer for this! It’s immaterial! It’s not physical! We should not expect to see it!
Similarly with the other sense modalities: we cannot touch, taste, smell or hear the dragon in my driveway because it’s a non-physical/immaterial being. Of course! It’s “beyond” our empirical faculties. I cannot scientifically prove it doesn’t exist, for I’ve been told that scientific proof doesn’t deal with that which is non-empirical. It’s not, as apologists often say, “an empirically testable question.” Plus, wouldn't I have to be omniscient to be certain that it does not exist? That's what apologists tell me anyway.
Now, of course, Bahnsen does not want to associate his god with anything that is so clearly subjective as this. Bahnsen wants us to presume that his god is real, not imaginary. That’s why he chooses to associate his god with the laws of logic instead of with what is merely imaginary – in order to give the defense of his god-belief an air of credibility that would not be available to him if he came out and used something like the dragon I imagine in my driveway as an example of something that’s “immaterial.”
But unlike the laws of logic, and yet like the dragon I imagine in my driveway, the Christian god is said to be a “personal agent,” a conscious being which sees, hears and knows, a being with a will, an entity which can act and get things done. By contrast, the laws of logic are not independently acting personal agents possessing a will. Quite simply, the laws of logic are not conscious beings. But the Christian god is supposed to be a conscious being, and the dragon that I imagine in my driveway is also a conscious being – I can imagine that it’s a conscious being just as I can imagine that it’s immaterial/non-physical. It is whatever I want to imagine it to be.
So I’m supposing that, with me, apologists would admit that anyone could imagine a conscious non-physical/immaterial being, just as I have done with the magic dragon I imagine in my driveway. Would apologists deny that we have this ability? If apologists concede that we can do this, what do we do if someone comes along, having imagined a conscious non-physical/immaterial being and insists that it is real, that it really exists, and that it demands something from us? How could we “test” this? Or, should we test it to begin with? Do apologists think we should simply accept such claims on a person’s mere say so? How can we reliably rule out the possibility, which the theist himself would have to concede, that the imagination of the person making the claim is involved? Blank out.
The more we examine and compare these things, the more the Christian god starts to resemble other things that we imagine. And indeed, when we read our bibles, we actively imagine what we read about (see here and here). If I read the story in the second chapter of the gospel of John about Jesus at the wedding of Cana, I imagine the scene, the characters and the actions described in that chapter. I imagine Jesus, I imagine the house, I imagine the house guests, I imagine the water pots, etc. As I read the story, I imagine all of it. And as I imagine it, what I read seems to take on a living character within my imagination. And the more I imagine it, the more real it starts to seem since I continue to invent more detail to fill in the blanks and make it more vivid.
I find that the same is the case with any other part of the bible that I read. If I read a passage in the book of Acts about Paul sailing on a ship in the Mediterranean Sea, for example, I imagine Paul, his fellow travelers, the ship, the ship hands, the sea, the weather, etc., etc., etc. I can imagine as much as I want. The text itself only provides a few of the details in the form of narrative descriptions, but my imagination does the rest of the work, building around what the text says and filling in many additional details, as much as I choose.
This is also the case when we read any other story, whether it’s Hansel and Gretel, Alice in Wonderland, the Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, etc. We can imagine magical things just as we can imagine miracles. (And really, what exactly is the difference?) We can imagine a surreal Dali-like realm just as we can imagine the ANE.
Could it be that Bahnsen was merely imagining his god and came over time to believe that what he was imagining over and over throughout his life in the context of social pressure and Christianity's overt psychological sanctions, was real? Maybe this happened more suddenly than that? Either way, we should not discount so easily the power of imagination. We should also not discount the power of religious mind manipulation. A religion, especially one as developed as Christianity, includes entire doctrines compelling adherents to believe everything it teaches, with threats of eternal torture backing it all up. Belief in what the bible teaches is emphatically reinforced at every turn. None of its core teachings are presented in a manner which suggests they are debatable. Believers are told that they must believe on pain of eternal punishment. So religion supplies, in the form of psychological sanctions, a network of motivations to compel belief. Additionally, the bible nowhere teaches believers how to reliably distinguish between what is real and what they may merely be imagining. Such teaching would be contrary to its purposes.
It may seem at first blush to be an overstatement, but I really think Bahnsen gives away the farm in his response to Stein right here. He’s essentially conceding that “immaterial” entities are comparable to psychological phenomena if they are not psychological phenomena proper. He cites nothing that is clearly a mind-independent entity as an example of an immaterial/non-physical being. Citing “the laws of logic” as an example of an immaterial/non-physical being, clearly aligns the category in question with things that are wholly psychological, for reasons that I have already brought out. And we already know that anyone can imagine the kinds of things Bahnsen wanted to believe were real, given his religious confession.
If the Christian god is in fact merely imaginary, it would still be possible for a person to persuade himself or be deluded into believing that it is real, and he might as well attempt to defend his belief that it is real, if he were confessionally motivated (as Bahnsen surely was), by associating it in a like manner to other psychological phenomena whose existence no one would want to dispute, like the laws of logic.
Of course, Bahnsen conveniently ignores some very crucial distinctions here, such as the fact that the laws of logic are conceptual formulations of the human mind and that they are not conscious beings which run around creating matter, performing miracles, directing the course of history, etc. The laws of logic are not living beings, they do not have a will of their own, they are not active entities. They are composed of concepts, which human beings form by a specific mental process.
Bahnsen also ignores the fact that anyone can imagine the kinds of things his religion proposes as supernatural beings: we can imagine immaterial conscious beings, like the dragon in my driveway, we can imagine supernatural agents which wage cosmic warfare and are engaged in a universal good-vs.-evil conflict, just as we can imagine Harry Potter flying around on a broomstick, or like the Christian god and its arch-adversary Satan. Why suppose one invention of our imagination is real when we readily acknowledge that other inventions of our imagination are not real?
Ask the apologists.
by Dawson Bethrick