Petersen’s Failed Attempts to Refute Leonard Peikoff: Preamble
Although Petersen allows that Objectivism is “one of the more interesting atheist philosophies,” his goal in his paper is to “demonstrate that there is no substance to the Objectivist’s objections to God, or specifically, Christianity.” Perhaps Petersen is under the impression that merely interacting with Peikoff’s brief asides should be sufficient to discredit Objectivism in toto. If that is the case, Petersen puts his reputation as a serious thinker into grave doubt.
Before launching into his interaction with Peikoff’s statements, Petersen gives some prefatory remarks about Peikoff in particular and Objectivism as a whole. I will confine the present blog entry to considering the remarks he gives here and examine his responses to Peikoff’s statements in subsequent entries.
In that introductory section, Petersen writes:
When one argues about any topic and claims to have knowledge of a proposition, that person must be able to give an answer that is consistent with their own epistemology.
But Petersen’s use of “must” here suggests that he believes this is some kind of “duty” or obligation. Curiously, however, I don’t ever recall finding such a commandment given anywhere in the bible. For that matter, where does the bible speak of epistemology to begin with?
Epistemology is focused not only on the nature and source of knowledge, but also on the how of knowledge. Its chief importance to philosophy is in describing the proper methodology of rational thought. While Christianity as a form of philosophy is abysmally deficient in all these areas, it is in the area of method that Christianity leaves its adherents most empty-handed (see for example here). Indeed, as I have shown, the claim to knowledge by “revelation” only indicates that the believer knows things no how. Specifically, such a claim would mean that he has knowledge apart from any mental activity which he himself has performed, such as differentiating, isolating, identifying, integrating, inferring, inducing, deducing, etc. These are fallible operations (yes, we can make mistakes – which is why we need reason) and they are performed volitionally by the knower (which means he needs to choose an epistemological method which enables him to formulate knowledge on the basis of objective input and detect and avoid errors).
But a claim to “revelation” seeks to bypass any epistemological process that the knower performs and which may result in error. In essence, the claim to knowledge via “revelations” is a claim to infallibility. (For more pointers on this issue, see my blog The Futility of the Apologetic Appeal to “Revelation”.)
So it’s quite ironic to find Christians pontificating about epistemology as if their worldview had anything of value to contribute to such areas of study. To the extent that the task of epistemology is to articulate the process which a human knower needs to perform in order to ensure that his claims to knowledge are objectively informed and free of error, the notion of “revelational epistemology” is completely and ineluctably oxymoronic. Christianity does not even equip its believers with reliable principles by which they can distinguish what they call “revelations” from their own emotions, their own wishes and preferences, their own imagination. Indeed, we find numerous instances in the bible where the knower acquires knowledge through dreams!
So whatever “epistemology” Christianity is going to end up endorsing, it would have to be compatible with the notion that a man can come along and claim to know things because they were “revealed” to him in a dream. But this simply underscores the fact that believers need to wake up.
When one reads Romans 1, it becomes clear that those that reject God are futile in their thinking.
Like the claim to knowledge by “revelations,” this just represents another example of the believer’s anxiety to find a shortcut to knowledge as part and parcel of his quest for the unearned.
And it’s quite predictable to find Christian apologists appealing to Romans 1 in their attempt to poison the well against man’s mind. I’m supposing that, if apologists had something stronger than Romans 1 to support their contentions, they’d happily ignore Romans 1 in preference for something better. But Romans 1 is the best they can stand on, and that’s too bad for Christians. For in Romans 1, what we have is not what Petersen characterizes it as. Petersen characterizes Romans 1 as though it proceeded from the lips of the god he worships in his imagination. But at best, what we have in this tired, worn-out chapter, are the writings of some man who died long ago after devoting his life to campaigning for an offshoot of the Mysteries cults. And its author, believed by many to be Paul, formerly known as Saul of Tarsus, was indeed quite fallible. As demonstration of his own fallibility, the author gave us verse 20 in this frequently cited chapter, which states:
the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.
So we can safely say that, if the apologist seeks to hide behind Romans 1, it’s a sure sign he’s on the ropes.
In the case of objectivists like Peikoff, what The Bible says in Romans 1 concerning futile thinking is quite evident.
Petersen closes out his introductory remarks with the following:
When it comes to the existence of God, Peikoff repeatedly leaves the bounds of what objectivst [sic] epistemology would allow him to know if we were to grant that the objectivist conception of epistemology is correct.
As confirming evidence of my assessment here, one will find no acknowledgement of the objective theory of concepts, let alone any direct engagement with it, anywhere in Petersen’s paper. Indeed, I did a quick search of Petersen’s paper for keyword ‘concept’ (use control-F to do this yourself), and I found only two hits. The first is the sentence quoted from Petersen directly above, where he references “the objectivist conception of epistemology.” The second instance of ‘concept’ appears in Peikoff’s own statement, styled by Petersen as “Objection 4.”
While there are many deficiencies that we will find in Petersen’s paper, his lack of familiarity with Objectivist epistemology (shored up by plugging in his own assumptions about “secular philosophy” into the raging gaps in his own knowledge) and his apparent failure to recognize the importance of concepts in human knowledge (indeed, Christianity has no theory of concepts to begin with), are central to his paper’s overall fatal flaws. In my next post in this series, I will take up Petersen’s response to Peikoff’s “Objection 1” and begin the task of exposing Petersen’s many philosophical blunders.
by Dawson Bethrick