Jason Petersen on the Fallacy of Pure Self-Reference
Here we have more proof that Petersen is content to make pronouncements about things of which he has little if any understanding. Why anyone would go to Jason Petersen in an effort to become better informed on anything falling under the purview of philosophy is beyond me. But he’s set himself up in a “ministry” and apparently that is all it takes, within Christianity, to become some sort of “expert” on philosophy.
Today’s [sic]-fest comes from Petersen’s 28. Q + A: The Fallacy of Pure-Self Reference [sic] (right – he doesn’t even get the hyphen correct!). In this “Q + A,” Petersen feigns to have the acumen to address a question about the fallacy of pure self-reference (notice where the hyphen goes).
Here is the question as it appears on Petersen’s webpage:
Hey Jason…is the “fallacy of self reference” a real fallacy? It seems to presuppose certain objectivist presuppositions that Christians would deny. I don’t see it used outside of objectivist circles. It is claimed by Anton Thorn.
Another question. Am I right to say that Christians would not believe in the primacy of consciousness or existence. It seems that there are definition issues, but God is more than a consciousness…I mean that consciousness does not encompass all His attributes? From the WSC ” God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.
Last question: What would be your definition of consciousness?(Specifically in relation to God.)
Petersen begins his response to this query with the following paragraph:
Philosophers do not generally recognize the fallacy of pure-self reference as a fallacy. Also, objectivists are known for making up terms and fallacies in order to make their conception of reality seem more plausible. It is rather underhanded, but in philosophy definitions can be questioned so the matter is rather trivial.
For example, how many philosophers “generally recognize” the virgin birth or the miracle-filled tales of Moses? For that matter, how many philosophers “generally recognize” theism as a legitimate worldview?
I wouldn’t hazard a guess on any of these myself, but one study under the auspices of David Chalmers surveying 3226 philosophers (“including 1803 philosophy faculty members and/or PhDs and 829 philosophy graduate students” per here; see also here) gives some real statistical information. (Information on the university departments targeted by the survey can be found here.)
On the question “God: theism or atheism,” respondents answered as follows:
Accept or lean toward:
atheism 2136 / 3226 (66.2%)
Accept or lean toward: theism 599 / 3226 (18.6%)
Other 491 / 3226 (15.2%)
The point is that it’s not very helpful to appeal to what a group of especially anonymous people might suppose, as Petersen does, unless of course one’s goal is to poison the well. It’s true that most philosophers out there reject Objectivism – we already know this. They reject Objectivism because they reject capitalism, limited government, free markets, rational self-interest, even rational epistemology in preference for socialism, increasing government intrusion into private affairs, altruism via “community service,” “environmentalism,” “climate change,” “multi-culturalism,” etc., etc., etc. But this fact will not offer any lasting value for Petersen’s apologetic goals.
Just as naïve is how Petersen overlooks the fact that fallacies are things thinkers have encountered in attempts to establish a conclusion, and that some of those thinkers had to identify them along the way. Those who have identified fallacies could have chosen instead to ignore them. Even more broadly, there was a time before any informal fallacy had ever been identified. At some point there had to be first one. Who can say that no more fallacies can be found?
In his A Concise Introduction to Logic (7th ed., 1999), Patrick Hurley points out (p. 120):
Since the time of Aristotle, logicians have attempted to classify the various informal fallacies. Aristotle himself identified thirteen and separated them into two groups. The work of subsequent logicians has produced dozens more, rendering the task of classifying them even more difficult.
In their Introduction to Logic (8th ed., 1990), Copi and Cohen make the following statement (p. 92):
How many different kinds of mistakes in arguments – different fallacies – must be distinguished? Aristotle, the first systematic logician, identified 13 types; very recently a listing of more than 113 has been developed! There is no precisely determinable number of fallacies, since much depends, in counting them, upon the system of classification used. We distinguish 17 fallacies here…
If however we are satisfied that Logic should treat of fallacies, it is very difficult to be satisfied with any treatment of them. Truth may have its norms, but error is infinite in its aberrations, and they cannot be digested in any classification.
So I would suggest that Petersen give these matters the sober care they clearly require.
Objectivists define this fallacy as a proposition that only refers to itself and nothing external of itself.
The fallacy of pure self-reference occurs when a concept or statement is asserted as referring exclusively to its own object-less referring.
Thorn himself cites a lecture by Dr. Harry Binswanger titled “The Metaphysics of Consciousness” as the source of his understanding of the fallacy of pure self-reference. Binswanger gives the name for this fallacy and he does so in the context of discussing the trend in philosophy and other disciplines to emphasize form at the expense of content and, in epistemology, “substituting the how for the what,” which leads to the view that thinking (the “how”) is possible without something to think about (the “what”). This is the essence of the fallacy of pure self-reference as Dr. Binswanger recognizes it. Binswanger cites Gödel’s Theorem as the instigator of his identification of this fallacy.
Consider the following statement:
This statement is provable.
Now, if Petersen does not accept this as fallacious, that tells us about him and his worldview. After all, his not accepting this as a real fallacy does not translate into a refutation of Binswanger’s observations. Petersen would need to do a lot more than merely pontificate from his secondhanded vantage of profound ignorance and naïveté to have any chance at such a goal.
Petersen thinks that the axiom of existence commits this very fallacy. He writes:
Ironically, by that definition, the primary objectivist axiom is, “existence exists.” Since the axiom doesn’t implicate anything regarding the state of affairs within reality, it commits the fallacy of pure self reference. Thus, if Adam Thorn thinks this philosophy to be so damaging, he ought to abandon objectivist metaphysics. [sic]
This all underscores the fact that, if Petersen does not even understand what Objectivism means by ‘existence exists’, he simply has no business trying to critique Objectivism.
But Petersen still thinks that the very idea of the fallacy of pure self-reference has negative implications for any philosophy which recognizes it as a real fallacy. He writes:
Nevertheless, the fallacy leads to absurd implications if someone argues it to be legitimate.
This sentence is false.
At first blush, it appears that embracing statements which are purely self-referential would lead to “absurd implications.” But let’s see if Petersen makes any progress in demonstrating his claim that the fallacy of pure self-reference “leads to absurd implications if someone argues it to be legitimate.”
In any philosophy, everyone must start somewhere.
But what does this have to do with the fallacy of pure self-reference?
If one does not start somewhere, then one cannot move to any conclusion, nor can they even begin to make inferences.
But again, what does this have to do with the fallacy of pure self-reference?
Petersen then says:
Any starting point in philosophy must be self-referent.
The fallacy of pure self-reference does not say that a statement which does refer to itself is necessarily fallacious simply because it refers to itself. If I make the statement, “Keep in mind what I say now, because it will help you in the future,” I am uttering a statement that makes reference to itself, but it does not refer exclusively to itself; the statement makes reference to other things as well. So while the statement does in fact refer to itself, it does not refer exclusively to its own referring.
Also, we must keep in mind that by “starting point in philosophy” we (I have Objectivism in mind here) mean a fundamental recognition which is conceptual in nature. Thus it necessarily involves the subject-object relationship: there is the subject of consciousness recognizing a fundamental primary, and there is the realm of objects which inform that recognition. Thus a starting point in philosophy needs to be not only conceptual, but also conceptually irreducible - i.e., it cannot presuppose more fundamental premises (which would themselves be composed of concepts). In other words, it must be in the form of an axiomatic concept, i.e., a first level concept formed directly on the basis of what is directly perceived. The concept ‘existence’, even if only implicitly, is the first concept one forms. Many thinkers don’t like to be reminded of it, so they prefer to simply take it for granted and leave it concealed beneath the surface so that its conflicts with a myriad of unfounded assumptions never come to light. But it’s still there, and so are the conflicts. Thus we can see how evasion is itself an expression of the primacy of consciousness: “If I don’t acknowledge the problem, the problem does not exist.” This is one of the distinguishing features of presuppositional apologetics, and we see it in action every time the apologist engages in “debate.”
This starting point is called a first principle.
Petersen goes on:
If one claims they can prove the first principle(also known as an axiom) can be shown to be true by something that is independent of the first principle, then the first principle is not a first principle. [sic]
Take a look at the axiom of existence. It denotes the fundamental fact that existence exists. Now realm of existence which the axiom of existence denotes does in fact exist independently of the axiom itself. The axiom is a formal recognition of the fact that existence exists. Recognition is a type of conscious activity. But existence exists independently of any conscious activity, including recognition. That’s the primacy of existence. The alternative (to be in line with what Petersen affirms here) would be tantamount to saying that existence will exist only so long as someone acknowledges that it exists. But that’s the primacy of consciousness. On the primacy of consciousness, existence depends on some kind of conscious activity.
Now strictly speaking – and this might be what Petersen is attempting to say here (if so, he needs to work on his ability to articulate himself with more clarity, and he needs to learn to be consistent with this) – Objectivism does not claim that it can establish the axioms on the basis of a formal proof - i.e., an argument consisting of premises supporting a conclusion, since the axioms are required for any proof to get off the ground. In actuality, proof is essentially the process of demonstrating the logical tie between that which is not perceptually self-evident with that which is perceptually self-evident. This is known in epistemology as reduction whereby a contextual context is analyzed in order to determine whether or not it has objective basis.
But this does not mean that the truth of the axioms cannot be demonstrated or shown. A formal proof is only one species of demonstration. There are empirical forms of demonstration as well. Consider the following dialogue between Smith, a philosophically untutored inquirer, and Jones, an Objectivist:
Smith: What’s your starting point?
Jones: I start with the axiom of existence – i.e., the fundamental recognition that existence exists.
Smith: Well, can you demonstrate the truth of this starting point?
Jones: Sure, look around you. What do you see?
Smith: Well, I see buildings, cars, people walking on the street, sidewalks, streets, newspaper stands, motorcycles, etc.
Jones: Right. All of that is what we mean by the concept ‘existence’.
Smith: But doesn’t what your starting point denotes need to depend on your starting point for your starting point to be true?
Jones: No, the exact opposite is the case: existence exists – the reality we perceive exists, and it exists independent of any conscious activity, including concept-formation. We see the world around us and we explicitly recognize the fact that it exists in the form of a single-concept axiom, ‘existence exists’. So there’s what exists, and there’s our identification of what exists.
Smith: Oh, hey, I get it. So you can demonstrate the truth of your axiom by pointing to something that is independent of it. You just don’t need an argument for it, since it’s not a conclusion of some prior reasoning.
Jones: Exactly. Since this is the most fundamental point in our conceptual awareness, there’s no need to assemble proofs for it. The task of proving something is itself a conceptual process. So at this point proof is not available to us yet.
Smith: I get it! Thanks!
Jones: I’m glad I could help.So it should be clear that, in addition to lacking an objective starting point, Petersen also ignores the distinction between concepts and their referents. The concept ‘existence’ is the most fundamental concept; it cannot be analyzed into or defined in terms of more fundamental concepts; the concept ‘existence’ is the most fundamental concept. But this does not mean that it cannot be shown to be true by something that is independent of that concept. Just as the universe exists independent of the concept ‘universe’, the realm of existence exists independent of the concept ‘existence’. The realm of objects which the concept ‘existence’ denotes does not depend on the concept ‘existence’ for their existence. The world exists, it exists independent of all conscious activity, and then we come along, see it directly, and identify what we see in conceptual form.
Consequently, what Petersen is offering here is just more primacy of consciousness metaphysics. He is essentially saying that the objects which a concept denotes depend on the concept for their very existence.
Petersen then writes:
Thus, if the fallacy of self-reference is true, then there can be no legitimate starting point for any worldview, including objectivism.
Thus, Adam [sic] Thorn’s fallacy draws a damaging implication that suggests that objectivism fails to escape a self-refuting skepticism.
Petersen presumptuously speaks for all Christian believers. He writes:
Christians do not believe in the primacy of consciousness or existence.
Here’s a cut-to-the-chase for any Christian who might be reading this. It’s a very simple, yes-no question:
Does wishing make something true?
A no answer would be compatible with the primacy of existence, the recognition that the objects of consciousness exist and are what they are independent of consciousness activity, that the task of consciousness is not to create and/or alter the nature of its objects by force of will, but to perceive objects and identify them.
Reluctance to weigh in on the question will only suggest that one is fearful of the implications of a commitment either way, that he is hesitant to expose his worldview’s endorsement of the primacy of consciousness. Then again, how could Christians consistently reply negatively to this question? What about their god’s wishing, which they claim made the world? According to Christian mythology, the Christian god essentially wished the universe into being, from nothing. That’s the primacy of consciousness on hyper-steroids.
But to say that “Christians do not believe in the primacy of consciousness or existence” would suggest that Christians do not believe there is any relationship between consciousness and its objects to begin with. In other words, it would constitute a wholesale denial of the subject-object relationship. But such a statement, coming from a self-professed Christian, would be self-refuting: he, Petersen, is a conscious subject making a statement about an entire class of objects, namely Christian believers, which he treats summarily. So whether he realizes it or not, Petersen is in effect engaging in the subject-object relationship while denying it at the same time. Thus he demolishes his own position by committing the fallacy of the stolen concept.
Christians believe in the primacy of God.
Also, the assertion of the imaginative notion of “the primacy of God” does not obviate the issue of metaphysical primacy – i.e., the question as to whether existence or consciousness holds metaphysical primacy. Notice that Petersen borrows the primacy of existence just in affirming what he says here, for he is stating it as thought it were a fact that obtains in reality (or “super-reality”) independent of anyone’s beliefs, knowledge, wishes, feelings, preferences, likes or dislikes, imagination, dreams, etc. In other words, he is implying that his statement denotes a fact that obtains independently of anyone’s conscious activity. That’s the primacy of existence. But in the content of what he claims, he is clearly affirming the primacy of consciousness – for smuggled in that content is the affirmation of a consciousness which does hold metaphysical primacy over existence – a consciousness which wished existence into being and which can revise whatever exists by force of will. So again, Petersen’s entire metaphysics is entirely self-contradictory: he is performatively borrowing the primacy of existence in order to assert a view which assumes the primacy of consciousness.
Existence and consciousness are a part of God’s attributes (Exodus 3:14).
So to tease this out, let’s ask a few fundamental questions about the god Petersen imagines:
1. Is the Christian god conscious? Yes or no? If no, then it has no knowledge, no judgment, no commandments, etc. If yes, then:Now, we have all heard enough about what Christianity teaches to know how a believer who is forthright about his worldview’s premises would have to answer these questions. So for apologists to come along and try to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes simply exposes their disingenuousness. They want to hide something about their worldview, so their entire mission to defend their worldview is fraught with dishonesty and deception.
2. Is the Christian god conscious of any objects? If no, then we’re back to no consciousness to begin with. If yes, then:
3. What is the relationship between the Christian god qua conscious subject and any objects it is said to be conscious of?
4. Do the objects of the Christian god’s consciousness exist and have their own identity independent of the Christian god’s conscious activity? A yes to this question would mean that the objects of the Christian god’s consciousness did not originate in the Christian god’s conscious activity (so it did not create them by fiat) and that they do not conform to the Christian god’s conscious intentions – e.g., if a flower is a daisy and it’s growing in the backyard of a home in rural Illinois, that flower exists and is what it is independent of any conscious activity that the Christian god might perform. Which would mean: the Christian god did not create it. On the other hand, if no, then:
5. Do the objects of the Christian god’s consciousness find their source in and/or conform to the Christian god’s conscious activity? A yes to this question would mean that the objects of the Christian god originated in the Christian god’s conscious activity (e.g., it wished them into being) and/or the objects are whatever the Christian wants them to be at any moment in their existence (e.g., one moment it is a stick, the next it is a serpent slithering along the floor).
Petersen cited the holy storybook to substantiate his point. Exodus 3:14 states:
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
What’s important to note is that the Christian storybook nowhere affirms these axiomatic concepts explicitly, nor does it explain their nature as axiomatic concepts, let alone discuss the issue of metaphysical primacy in any informed manner. On the contrary, like other writings, the Christian bible leaves these concepts implicit and in so doing fails to distinguish itself from the vast universe of human literature which does the same. Its authors clearly accepted the primacy of consciousness; this is incontestable. This is not unique. In fact, it’s quite commonplace in ancient literature, just as it is so commonplace in today’s philosophy departments. Old bad ideas die hard.
God does not rely on existence or consciousness for his knowledge because God does not gain or lose knowledge. Rather, he is all knowing, and has always been all knowing.
In relation to God, I would define consciousness as being self aware and aware of external objects.
But what good does Petersen’s proposed definition do for his position? Now he needs to define what “aware” means, since he has defined consciousness as “being self aware and aware of external objects.” So has he really made any progress here?
Another question, which Petersen does not anticipate, is: by what means is this alleged god aware of anything, whether it’s of itself or of anything distinct from itself? It has no body, so it has no physical organs which can register stimuli from its environment. So does it have some other means? Or, is it aware of things no how? If that’s the case, then on what objective basis could one call it “awareness”? What objective inputs (e.g., things outside his wishing and imagination) can the apologist point to in order to substantiate his claims? Blank out.
Also, notice that “being aware… of external objects” is essential to Petersen’s definition of the concept ‘consciousness’. So this just leads us right back to the problem of divine lonesomeness: what external objects were available for the Christian god to be aware of before it supposedly created any? The Christian worldview requires that there are no independently existing things other than the Christian god, that everything that exists other than the Christian god was created by the Christian god. If one accepts this, he would also have to accept the view, necessarily implicit in all this, that there would have to have been a point before which it created anything distinct from itself. But then we would be right back where Christianity ultimately started, with consciousness conscious of nothing but itself. So the Christian cannot escape the fallacy of pure self-reference.
I’m sure glad these aren’t my problems!
However, God did not ever gain point of external objects, nor did he ever realize that he is self aware.
But the rest of what he says is clear. It means he worships a god which has never discovered that it is self-aware.
Because God is unchangeable, immutable, and all knowing, he knows all propositions objectively without any limitation of knowledge of these propositions.
Thus, knowledge of reality is not predicated on consciousness or reality itself, rather, it is predicated upon God.
Without God, nothing would exist and there would not be any consciousness.
Petersen closes with the following remark:
Perhaps a more extensive response to Thorn is warranted, but that shall come in due time.
by Dawson Bethrick