Petersen’s Failed Attempts to Refute Leonard Peikoff: Objection 2
The first entry in this series can be found here.
The second entry in this series (Objection 1) can be found here.
Dr. Peikoff’s statements in question can be found here.
Jason Petersen’s response to Peikoff can be found here.
In this entry I will examine Petersen’s attempts to refute Peikoff’s “Objection 2” against theism. As in his approach to Peikoff’s “Objection 1,” Petersen again tries to perform an internal critique against Peikoff. In the present case, Petersen charges that Peikoff is making affirmations which Objectivist epistemology cannot support. We will find that Petersen makes this charge in glaring ignorance of what Objectivist epistemology actually teaches. Not to give the whole thing away, but Petersen repeatedly shows that he has little if any understanding of concepts. This lack of understanding, of course, can be traced back to Petersen’s own worldview, Christianity, which provides no understanding of concepts.
So let’s jump in and see what we see.
Petersen quotes Peikoff, who states:
Is God the creator of the universe? There can be no creation of something out of nothing. There is no nothing.
Answer: This claim is simply not consistent with Peikoff’s own epistemology. Objectivism holds that there is no knowledge that humans have prior to experience, nor is there knowledge that can be gained independently of experience and sense perception.
But it does not follow from any of this that man is therefore incapable, given Objectivism’s epistemology, of reaching far-ranging abstractions about things that his senses do not put him in direct contact with. The only way one could draw the conclusion that man is therefore entirely stranded at the perceptual level of awareness given Objectivist epistemology, is by ignoring everything else we find in Objectivist epistemology, in particular the objective theory of concepts. Just because man begins at the perceptual level of awareness, does not mean that he is therefore incapable of abstracting general truths from what he perceives and building higher and higher on those truths.
Let me emphasize this: Only if Objectivism held that man is confined to the perceptual level of awareness could Petersen have any hope of finding some internal inconsistency here. But since Objectivism in fact does not hold this to be the case, then Petersen’s charge has no chances.
Take a look at the relevant facts: One, Objectivist epistemology presents an entire theory of concepts, thereby affirming man’s ability to form concepts and develop a vast body of abstract knowledge on the basis of what he finds in the world by looking outward. Two, Peikoff is an Objectivist, which means: his pronouncements stem from the teachings of Objectivist philosophy. Three, since Peikoff’s philosophy has an entire theory of concepts, Peikoff is not confined to the perceptual level awareness in the statements he makes and the inferences he draws. On the contrary, his worldview explicitly gives him fully justified access to the conceptual realm, the very realm which Petersen’s charge denies to Peikoff. In spite of Petersen’s failure to grasp and appreciate the enormous implications of these very facts, it does not follow that Peikoff is affirming inconsistent with his own epistemology. Far from it in fact!
Essentially, Petersen attributes to Peikoff an epistemology which has stranded men at the perceptual level in the sense that they cannot formulate any general truths from a perceptual basis. Petersen characterizes this as “Peikoff’s epistemology,” thus completely artificially distorting the facts in favor of his efforts to refute Peikoff’s objections to the notion of a god. So even though the objective theory of concepts is central to Objectivist epistemology, Petersen is essentially saying that man, according to Objectivist epistemology, has no recourse to the conceptual level of awareness and all the benefits that come along with it, such as inductive and deductive inference. If Peikoff were in fact wrong in what he says, why would his detractors need to jettison an entire, hugely important context of Peikoff’s position in order to substantiate the claim that he’s wrong? Blank out.
The issue involved in Peikoff’s present objection to god-belief is the notion that a god created the universe. We already saw in my previous post in this series how the notion of something existing “outside the universe” is self-contradictory, specifically since on Peikoff’s view ‘universe’ means the sum totality of all that exists. The reasoning here couldn’t be more straightforward: if something exists, it is part of the sum totality of everything that exists, which means that it must be part of the universe – i.e., that it must exist within the universe. Thus to posit something “existing” outside the universe is to posit something “existing” outside the sum totality of everything that exists. It’s a blatant self-contradiction. But this is essentially what theists are defending when they try to raise objections to Objectivist atheology.
Let me repeat: if the universe is the sum totality of everything that exists, then if something exists it exists within that sum totality, and thus it makes no sense to posit something existing outside that totality. This is essentially what Peikoff had stated earlier, and I think it applies quite directly to the present matter.
Now what exactly is Petersen’s contention against this? Well, that’s the problem: Petersen never seems to grasp the very straightforward reasoning here. Specifically, Petersen does not question Peikoff’s definition of ‘universe’, nor does Petersen even make the slightest effort to validate the notion that something can exist outside the universe and thus be responsible for “creating” it. Even worse, Petersen never makes any effort to validate the notion, which is so central to Christianity, that an act of consciousness can produce mind-independent concretes.
Consider the following:
Is Peikoff wrong to say that something of a certain nature cannot exist? What if the something in question is said to have a nature that contradicts everything Peikoff knows about reality? Would he still be wrong to say that such a thing could not exist? Would he be wrong to say that something contradictory to the reality in which we find ourselves cannot exist? Frankly, I don’t see why Peikoff would be wrong to say this, and Petersen’s comments have not been helpful in showing that Peikoff would be wrong.
Is Peikoff wrong to say that something of a certain non-nature cannot exist? But we already saw, in the previous entry in this series, that to exist is to have a specific nature. Thus something that allegedly had a non-nature would be something that has no nature. But a thing is its nature. To exist is to be something specific. That’s the law of identity. Clearly Peikoff would be right, given the law of identity, to say that such a thing could not exist.
Is Peikoff wrong to say that a claim is not true? Generally speaking, Peikoff would have to have the ability to say that a claim is not true, if in fact he had sufficient reason to do so. Consider Peikoff’s starting point, the axiom of existence. This axiom affirms explicitly that existence exists. It is based on direct perceptual awareness of everything he sees, touches, hears, etc. Given this recognition, he would be fully justified in saying that the claim that there is no existence, is wrong. Such a claim would contradict everything he can know and verify by means of firsthand cognitive activity.
Given that Peikoff can indeed have sufficient warrant in making knowledge judgments in these general categories, it’s hard to see how Peikoff could be accused of abandoning his own epistemological commitments by making the statements which Petersen has quoted from him, especially when his philosophy – Objectivism – presents a full account for the relationship between conceptual awareness and its basis in perceptual awareness. Petersen takes none of this into account in his attempt to present an internal critique here.
Aside from the fact that Peikoff is making a bare assertion, there is simply no way that he can demonstrate that something cannot be created from nothing by an all powerful being.
Also, why would Peikoff, or anyone for that matter, need to “demonstrate that something cannot be created from nothing by an all powerful being”? If said “all powerful being” is merely imaginary, then it does not exist and therefore cannot do anything. I have already given good reasons to suppose that the Christian god is imaginary in my blog entry titled The Imaginative Nature of Christian Theism. So far I’ve not seen any effective responses from defenders of Christian god-belief against the points that I cite there. Christians need to identify an objective alternative to imagination as the means by which we have “awareness” of the god their religion describes. Otherwise, as Steve Hays puts it, “an imagined Jesus is just an imaginary Jesus,” and likewise an imagined god is just an imaginary god. And since theists routinely fail to offer any alternative to the imagination as the means by which we are to have “awareness” of their god, then we must accept the fact that all indicators are that the Christian god is a figment of the believer’s imagination, no matter how much he wants it to be real.
Moreover, like everyone else, Peikoff has more than sufficient observational evidence to inform and support the recognition that matter does not come into and/or go out of existence. Matter can change form, but it does not suddenly pop into existence. We never observe things suddenly popping into existence or suddenly vanishing, never to be seen again. And certainly we do not find any example of acts of consciousness bringing new things into existence, such as wishing a pebble or a planet into existence. That is, we do not find examples of this when we look outward at the world around us.
But of course, none of these facts will stop anyone from imagining that things can suddenly pop into existence or imagining some consciousness that can magically wish things into existence. If existence is eternal and uncreated, it would still be possible to imagine that existence was created by an act of some imaginary consciousness. And this is precisely what we find in Christianity: an imaginary consciousness doing imaginary things. It’s all make-believe.
Now, if Petersen can demonstrate something being “created from nothing by an all powerful being,” by all means show us! This would settle many conflicts. Perhaps this “all powerful being” could create a new continent, say, south of Hawaii, or a second moon orbiting earth. Of course, it would have to do this in such a way as to preclude scientific explanations. Whatever it is that the “all powerful being” zaps into existence, it must be indisputably clear that it was not assembled from pre-existing matter. And to eliminate all possible doubt, this “all powerful being” would need to appear before us (surely it can do that, no?) and announce exactly what it plans to wish into existence before performing its magic feat.
But something tells me that neither Petersen nor anyone else will ever be able to present such a demonstration. This means that their “all powerful being” and notions like creation ex nihilo will forever remain in the bowels of the imagination, and believers will simply need to learn to be content with this fact. If I can do that, why can’t they?
Ayn Rand argued that all knowledge comes from “reason.” To Ayn Rand, “reason” means sense perception and experience.
Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses. (“The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 20)
Reason integrates man’s perceptions by means of forming abstractions or conceptions, thus raising man’s knowledge from the perceptual level, which he shares with animals, to the conceptual level, which he alone can reach. The method which reason employs in this process is logic—and logic is the art of non-contradictory identification. (“Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 62)
Petersen goes on:
Peikoff cannot, without betraying his own objectivist epistemology, argue for a proposition that is outside of sense perception and experience.
Jason Petersen seems fixated on this premise, for we find him dishing it out elsewhere. In a video on Youtube titled Jason Petersen on Epistemology in Secular Philosophy, Petersen states (7:46 – 8:17):
I was talking to an atheist and the atheist told me in this debate “Well, I learn things by experience.” I said “That’s great. So is it your experience that something comes from nothing? Is it your experience that the universe can just spontaneously come out of [into?] existence?” I said that… because he was arguing that the universe could come from nothing, I said “But if you start you’re your experience, how could you draw that conclusion in the first place? You’re contradicting yourself. Because you say you start with experience to know things, but you haven’t experienced the universe suddenly popping into being.”
But if we begin with perception and if we do in fact have the ability to form abstractions on the basis of experience, then the problem which Petersen wants his audience to uncritically swallow disappears completely.
In other words, Peikoff is making claims that his own objectivist epistemology cannot support.
Consider the wide-reaching implications of this simple example. I have formed the concept ‘shoe’ in which I have integrated all the data that I have discovered in every shoe that I have personally come in contact with (i.e., from “experience”). I formed this concept by the very process outlined by the objective theory of concepts, which Rand presents in her book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. (Where does Christianity present a theory of concepts? Blank out.) But, significantly, notice that, as a category, the concept ‘shoe’ includes much more than just the individual shoes I’ve seen firsthand. Thanks largely to the process of measurement-omission, the concept ‘shoe’ that I have formed includes every shoe which exists now, which has existed in the past, and which will exist in the future, regardless to size, color, style, material content, degree of wear, etc. The concept ‘shoe’ gives me general knowledge of all shoes, past, present and future, regardless of where they currently exist, where they did exist or where they will exist (for time and place are also omitted measurements), thus allowing me to expand my knowledge well beyond that which I immediately perceive. Given all this, if I have a conversation on the phone with my cousin in Virginia, and he starts telling me about a new pair of shoes he’s purchased, I can readily comprehend what he’s saying, even though I’ve never experienced those particular shoes before!
So I’m more than satisfied in saying that Ayn Rand solved the problem of universals with her groundbreaking theory, but I realize it will take the rest of the world a very long time to catch on (if they ever do!).
What’s crucial for our present purposes, is to note that Petersen’s entire case requires that we ignore the cognitive role of concepts and along with this the facts that, not only that we are capable of conceptual thought in the first place, but also that concepts are formed on the basis of objective input gathered through firsthand experience of the world and that concepts expand our knowledge beyond our experience, and in an objectively informed manner to boot.
Petersen goes on:
In order to know that there is no nothing, Peikoff would have to be omniscient.
If there were nothing, there would be no something. If anything exists, then there is no nothing. The concept ‘nothing’ does not denote an existent, but rather the absence of existents. Consequently, if Peikoff is aware of anything, he is fully justified in recognizing the obvious fact that something exists, and therefore that “there is no nothing.” Thus Peikoff is surely not speaking beyond his knowledge.
In addition to not grasping what the concept ‘nothing’ means, Petersen is arguing from a reversed understanding of what knowledge is, which is quite common among thinkers today, especially if they are prone to treating arbitrary notions as though they warranted serious investigation. We do not work from omniscience to knowledge, nor is omniscience our standard. Reason is our only objective standard, and we use reason to acquire knowledge. The primary purpose of reason is to identify and integrate the material we perceive by means of concepts; its primary purpose is not to acquire knowledge by sifting through proposed alternatives, as though our minds were constantly beholden to a process of elimination. We do not learn about reality by looking inward at all the fanciful scenarios we can concoct in our imagination and eliminating those that we find deficient for whatever reason. On the contrary, we learn about reality by looking outward at it, identifying what we perceive by means of concepts, integrating those concepts into broader or more refined concepts, and those into further levels of abstraction. This means we need good reasons – i.e., objective input from reality – to accept claims as knowledge; we do not need to busy ourselves with the task of coming up with reasons to dismiss or reject proposals which have no objective support. But this seems to be what Petersen requires from non-theistic thinkers like Peikoff. Indeed, if all evidence indicates that Petersen’s god is a figment of the imagination (and it does indicate this), that’s all we need in order to reject it (and that’s what I do). Petersen does not have to like this, but it is the case all the same.
Because Peikoff has not had the necessary experiences to confirm that the universe is eternal, he is going out of the bounds of his own epistemology when he makes statements such as, “there can be no creation of something out of nothing.”
We saw above that by ‘universe’ Peikoff explicitly means the sum totality of all that exists. We also saw that the existence of the universe is a necessary precondition for time: since time is a form of measurement, and what it measures is motion and activity, then things would have to exist in order for there to by any motion and activity to measure. The only consistently logical conclusion, given these premises, is that the universe must therefore be eternal. What special experience is needed in addition to this “to confirm that the universe is eternal”?
Now Petersen may reject Peikoff’s definitions, and if so, that’s peachy keen. I frankly doubt Peikoff cares. But the upshot is that Petersen has failed to produce an internal critique, and with the clarifications I have given above, Peikoff’s points so far stand vindicated.
Next up, we’ll look at Petersen’s response to Peikoff’s third objection to theism.
by Dawson Bethrick