Tuesday, May 26, 2020

WSIBC: Presup Enters Rehab

Christian apologist James Anderson closes out the fourth chapter of his book Why Should I Believe Christianity? (WSIBC) with a section titled “Does God Really Need To be Proven?” – a provocative question indeed given that he devoted the chapter up to this point to laying out his six cases for theism. And it almost seems to be a trick question of sorts, given the way it is phrased: even if one believes that there’s a god, how could one suppose it has any needs at all, let alone a “need to be proven”? I thought one of the advantage of being a god was that it has no needs to begin with. Thus it seems the section is starting out with a hint as to how Anderson is going to answer his own question by the way he heads it.

Of course, the non-existent has no needs, but man’s mind does have needs. Nothing will ensure that a “worldview” will in fact address and satisfy those needs, but it is the task of philosophy to identify and understand those needs and point to rational solutions. 

Anderson opens this section with the following summation of his efforts in chapter 4:
I hope by now I’ve been able to persuade you that there are excellent reasons to believe in a transcendent personal God who created and sustains the universe. I’ve argued that we need to acknowledge the reality of God in order to make sense of various things we take for granted and depend on every day: existence, values, morality, reason, mind and science. (WSIBC, p. 135)
Readers should judge for themselves, and I encourage anyone who is interested to examine Anderson’s six cases firsthand, just as I have done. My interactions with Anderson’s “excellent reasons to believe in a transcendent personal God who created and sustains the universe” can be accessed here:
WSIBC: “God and Existence” – Part 1: “The Question”  
WSIBC: “God and Existence” – Part 2: Contingency Desperation  
WSIBC: “God and Values”  
WSIBC: “God and Morality”  
WSIBC: “God and Reason”  
WSIBC: “God and Mind”  
WSIBC: “God and Science”
The strategy which Anderson has executed in each of his cases follows a roughly common pattern: first, identify some aspect of experience that even the most advanced thinkers take for granted, second, point out that the aspect in question does not stand on its own but in fact requires some basis to make it possible, and then claim that Christian theism provides the only possible basis for whatever it is that people customarily take for granted. This strategy has a twofold benefit for the apologist: it allows him to assert his theism as having fundamental explanatory importance, and it also puts Christianity in the position of a set of truths which are also taken for granted. We have seen this approach on display over and over again.

It is true that thinkers of even lofty achievements take many things for granted. But this fact in itself is taken by the presuppositional approach as license to insert a form of mysticism as the best or only plausible explanation for those topics. This approach allows the apologist to put aside any attempt to argue directly for the existence of his god by essentially saying to non-believers “You assume X, but you can’t explain X, and only Christianity can explain X,” and from here the apologist apparently thinks it’s a short distance to asserting that Christianity is true, even though the analysis he provides on behalf of the purported linkage between X and the alleged truth of Christian theism is crassly superficial and itself falls prey to the insinuation which the apologist attempted to leverage to get his defense started in the first place, namely it takes an awful lot for granted in its own right!

Presuppositionalists themselves may object that my analysis fails to consider the “indirect” nature of their arguments (I use the term loosely here) and the reasoning as to why their theism needs to be defended indirectly. But this would simply be a deflection attempting to sidestep the fact that I have taken on their indirect arguments head on in the first place. And now that my interaction with Anderson’s six cases is free to anyone to access and review, anyone thinking they can salvage his arguments are welcome to avail themselves of the comments section on my blog. Besides, John Frame, himself a bigwig in the presup camp, tells us that “Any indirect argument… can be turned into a direct argument by some creative rephrasing” (Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 76). So there does not seem to be a fundamental distinction here that I'm overlooking. At any rate, if the case for theism suffers from the deficiencies of denying the axioms and the primacy of existence, of lacking a good understanding of concepts, and of requiring thinkers to shift from a reality-oriented perspective to an immersion in imagination, as my analyses demonstrate over and over again, then trifling over phraseology is just a distraction from something far more important.

I have always suspected that the apologist’s preference for indirect arguments stems from shortcomings endemic to the religious worldview per se. For example:
- the lack of a clear starting point for the religious worldview and an unwillingness to expose this fact;  
- an inability to demonstrate any actual connection between theistic commitments and what we actually find in reality;  
- ignorance of the issue of metaphysical primacy and an inability to validate the primacy of consciousness, on which their theism inherently depends;  
- the adamantine reluctance to consider the role of imagination in religious thought and acknowledge the crucial distinction between what is real and what is actually only imaginary.
The persisting failure to grapple with these matters only seals that suspicion. In that case, the fourth chapter of Anderson’s book, if not his entire book itself, is one big missed opportunity.

From a consideration of persuasiveness, it certainly does not help the apologist’s case to say that some aspect of experience that one is inclined to “take for granted” has its basis in the existence of a god when the existence of said god is what the apologist is called to prove in the first place. If at best all he can do is position his claim that “X is the case because God exists” as his defense of the theistic assertion, he’s on terminally weak grounds, and I suspect that at some level he does realize this and hopes that his bluffing will nonetheless bowl us over in the end. This raises the question of burden of proof, which is a most fickle matter among apologists from what I’ve seen. Some acknowledge that the apologist has the burden of proof, if not in word then at least in deed (such as writing and publishing an entire book!). But very often such admissions are accompanied by the grudging insistence that non-believers too have a burden of proof, often implying that it has not been met. The question at that point is: What does the apologist think that the non-believer needs to prove, and to whom? Apologists are welcome to use the comments section if they have some thoughts specifically on this matter.

As an example of how the Christian worldview, in spite of the firepower apologists have brought to bear in defending it, terminally lacks clarity when it comes to fundamentals, we observed in my previous post the spectacle of a Christian apologist denying outright the axiom that existence exists (see specifically here). The apologist had declared explicitly that “existence doesn’t exist.” That a defender of the Christian worldview would do this only confirms that such a denial is possible on the assumption that the Christian worldview is true in the first place, which means: the Christian worldview does not explicitly begin with an acknowledgement of the fact that existence exists, even though this fact is irreducibly fundamental, and to the extent that the Christian worldview has any starting point to begin with, it’s for theologians to tease out in their multi-volume tomes that serve as good resting places for layers of library dust. Indeed, whether or not Anderson identifies a conceptually irreducible starting point anywhere in his case for Christianity is one of the questions I put before myself as I set out to examine his book (see here for a list of those questions).

Ignorance of the issue of metaphysical primacy is another area of glaring deficiency on the part of the apologist. He may vaingloriously pride himself for making the case that the universe cannot be eternal, that the ‘fine-tuning’ of the earth is simply too astronomically precise to be the result of chance, that consciousness is so different from matter as to underscore the need to point to theism as its explanation, but none of this constitutes evidence for the Christian god specifically, for supernaturalism generally, or – most importantly - for the assumption that existence must be the product of conscious activity. (Indeed, the notion that consciousness is so special that it must be the product of conscious activity is itself an obscene example of bare-bones circular bluster, what I have referred to as tape-loop apologetics.) And again, if we aren’t paying attention, lost in all this will be the fact that the apologist nowhere identifies his starting point. These concerns are deeply intertwined. I could not find anywhere in Anderson’s book where he identifies Christianity’s starting point in a definitive manner. (If I’ve missed it, please use the comments section below.) Yet that’s the most critical point in any structure – its very foundation! Get that wrong, and the entire assemblage quickly disintegrates like a lean-to in a hurricane.

The way I see it, when it comes to identifying one’s starting point, there are only two options, the rational one, and the anti-rational one. The rational one is to start with existence – i.e., with the fact that existence exists as one’s irreducible primary, which is perceptually self-evident – and move forward to further knowledge, as Objectivism does explicitly. The alternative to this is to start with something other than existence, that is, to start with non-existence, and then find oneself stuck with the dubious task of trying to explain the obvious and undeniable fact that existence exists from non-existence as one’s fundamental primary, which is a irresuscitably doomed project. Why start with non-existence when it’s obvious that existence exists?

But starting with non-existence as one’s primary is what explains why theism might seem initially plausible to someone who hasn’t really thought through these issues very carefully. One would only find it necessary to explain “where it all came from” if his starting point is non-existence. In this way the primitives sought to answer this unnecessary quandary by imagining a consciousness which came along and wished existence into being. The religious worldview is simply the outcome of investing one’s understanding of reality in this morass of stolen concepts.

Anderson then offers a telling admission:
But it’s worth asking whether any of the arguments I’ve given are actually necessary. Do we really need arguments like these as a basis for belief in God?  
Actually, no. (WSIBC, p. 135)
At its very root, mysticism is anti-intellectual. A healthy human intellect is nourished on reason, while a mind steeped in mysticism is hostile to reason and clings to the imagination as the primary faculty as though it were a source of knowledge of reality. It’s not.

Anderson elaborates on the answer he gives to his titular question:
Indeed from a Christian perspective that would be quite a bad thing because it takes some serious intellectual effort and aptitude to understand such arguments. Christianity isn’t just for intellectuals. It’s for everyone. You don’t need to be a black belt in philosophical ju-jitsu to know that God is real. (WSIBC, pp. 135-136)
Essentially, the church needs stuffing, and we cannot expect the kind of intellectual heavy-lifting that Anderson thinks his arguments require from credulous pew-sitters. And this is really what Christianity needs to keep its numbers up: mentally decapitated chattel who nod in uncritical agreement to what they’re told to believe so that ministers can be greeted by ever-expanding seas of amen-oozing stares of obedient sheep. That is not to say that all believers fit this stark profile; there are exceptions to any rule of thumb. But indiscriminate acceptance of content on the part of adherents is indispensible to the longevity of religion.

Anderson’s own words confirm this when he makes the following point elsewhere in his book:
The eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume was no less skeptical about the Christian doctrine of Christ’s resurrection. He quipped that since a resurrection would fly in the face of all our past experience, it would actually take a miracle for someone to believe that it happened. So why do Christians believe it?  
The short answer is: because the Bible says so. (WSIBC, pp. 194-195)
The purpose of arguments is to establish knowledge, specifically new knowledge derived from knowledge that has already been validated. This requires careful, even painstaking building of knowledge in a hierarchically integrated context which is ultimately grounded in facts that are perceptually self-evident (cf. the axioms). This is the primary reason why theistic arguments are doomed to fail: they cannot ever establish their conclusions in a way that rationally ties back to objective input. It’s also why one will always need to make use of his imagination when he gets to the conclusions of theistic arguments: since the god which the believer worships is imaginary in the first place, no theistic argument can successfully bypass the need to employ the imagination to consider what those arguments are aimed to establish.

In contrast to knowledge, the focus of religion is belief. Believing and knowing are not the same thing. The distinction here is not only in the nature of the product, but also in the process in getting there. Where knowing requires a process of reason and is subject to objective scrutiny and logical correction, belief throws a wider net and can take the form of uncritical acceptance, such as if and when the reasons put forward for a belief are fallacious or even contrary to the facts. Even Christians would acknowledge that a billion Muslims are wrong in many of their beliefs. So are Christians!

But as I pointed out above, indiscriminate acceptance of content on the part of adherents is indispensable to the longevity of religion. And this means not only that religious content needs to be immediately impactful, it also needs to be widely accessible. Imagination, rather than argument, fulfills this need. For it is by means of the imagination that the believer mentally concretizes the story elements of religion’s narrative structure with immediate emotional impact. Religion offers the faithful believer eternal life, and “the promise of immortality,” Anderson himself tells us, “has always held a grip on the human imagination” (WSIBC, p. 191). So like setting a trap, religion dangles a powerful incentive here. Whether it’s through preaching or by reading the relevant passages in the bible, the believer “sees” Jesus being nailed to the cross in his imagination when he considers this element of the narrative, thus fixing it in his consciousness as if he were aware of something existing independent of his experience, not making it real, but making it emotionally impactful nevertheless, in its own context even more emotionally impactful than anything that is real. This is achieved through emphasis and repetition. If one reads a news story of a car accident, there may be some nominal impact on one’s emotions when reading of the details and imagining the scene which the story describes. But then one moves on to other things. However, in religious devotion, the impactful stories are repeated over and over again with an air of existential urgency, driving them deeper into one’s consciousness to such a degree that one might even suppose that reality simply wouldn’t “make sense” without reference to the narratives, their elements, and their surrounding context. This gives presuppositionalism its native traction among many apologists. But in the end they’re really just trying to convince themselves of something they can’t help doubting, which is why they’re ‘always ready’ (to use Bahnsen’s title) to rationalize away the lack of persuasiveness of their “proofs.”

The role of imagination in religious belief is one reason why indoctrinating people into religion when they’re young is so effective. Children are philosophically defenseless – they typically cannot distinguish a sound argument from a fallacious argument. But they can imagine, and once those emotionally impactful images are seared into their psychology, they may very well last a lifetime, like scars marking a childhood of abuse. Also, religious belief is accessible even to adults with low IQ because even adults with low IQ have the capacity to imagine. And that is what religion seeks to exploit first on the way to crippling a person spiritually. The power of religion, however, lies in its capacity to arrest the development of critical faculties so that as those indoctrinated children reach adulthood, their imagination still holds cognitive primacy in their understanding of reality.

At any rate, Anderson has not succeeded in his attempts to articulate a rational connection between his god-beliefs and the hard facts of reality. And that is not because his attempts suffer from deficiencies in style, poor word choice or informal fault which can be improved upon and overcome to recover his cases. A mere HelpDesk ticket isn’t going to fix things here. Rather the blocker here is that there is no rational connection between theism and reality to begin with, and no amount of argumentation, transcendental or otherwise, will rectify this. This is why he needs the out which he reserves on behalf of the apologetic endeavor in this section of his book’s fourth chapter: arguments aren’t really needed after all! And the reason for this is not simply that everyone is supposed to “just know,” but that everyone is supposed to “just know” what supposedly exists beyond the universe.

Needless to say, the assumption that the human mind can “just know” and the attitude that one should believe something “because the Bible says so” could hardly be any further from the procedures of science!

Anderson points out that “the Bible teaches that the existence of a personal creator is plainly evident to everyone from His creation” (WSIBC, p. 136). And here he no doubt has in mind Romans 1:20, which states:
For 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.
I’ve always found the apologists’ emphasis on this passage rather puzzling if not self-defeating. If it were truly the case that “the existence of a personal creator is plainly evident to everyone” from the things that we see, handle and observe, why would we need to look in a book to tell us that this is so “plainly evident”? I don’t need a storybook or religious track to tell me that the tree I see before me is clearly a tree. A perceptually self-evident fact is not true by virtue of some scrap of writing which affirms it. And though the apologist might retort that their god is of course not perceptually self-evident (indeed, we must imagine it), the passage here is intended to give the impression that god-belief is on the same level as facts that are perceptually self-evident.

Moreover, it seems dubious to cite as evidence for the claim that “the existence of a personal creator is plainly evident to everyone” a verse which states that something that is said to be “invisible” is also “clearly seen.” But in spite of the incoherence of characterizing that which is supposedly “clearly seen” is also “invisible,” Christians do show an undying fondness for this verse. Then again, the passage would not have its desired force if the expression “clearly seen” were really just a euphemism for an inference of sorts, for that would need to allow for human fallibility that is implicitly disallowed by the aim of holding all human beings as being “without excuse.” So the verse is at odds with itself on several layers. So while the point of the verse also plays well into Anderson’s desire to discount the importance of theistic arguments, it unfortunately draws our awareness to a new level of incoherence in Christian theism.

It is the primacy of imagination over facts which allows Anderson to proclaim:
God’s fingerprints are everywhere! Every single element of the universe, from the magnificent spiraling galaxies to the tiniest snowflake, offers evidence of its divine authorship. (WSIBC, p. 136)
So things which exist within the universe are characterized as evidence of something allegedly existing “outside” the universe. Even though we would simply have to take Anderson’s word for this – and then imagine the divine agent he claims is real, the notion that things we find in the universe can serve as evidence of the god Christianity describes is fatally problematic. For the things we find within the universe are finite, physical, natural, and corruptible, yet the Christian god is said to be infinite, non-physical, supernatural and incorruptible. Reality is thus called evidence of something that contradicts it. So we have incoherence just compounding itself into deeper incoherence.

Here Anderson elaborates:
When we survey a beautiful landscape or gaze at a glorious sunset; when we delight at the delicate beauty of a butterfly’s wings; when we marvel and rejoice at a newborn baby; when we feel the prick of the moral law within us; when we have a deep sense that our lives are not merely a great cosmic accident; when we experience all of these things, and many others beside, it’s literally the most natural thing in the world to believe that there is a Creator behind them. (WSIBC, p. 136)
Of course, Anderson avoids addressing Bahnsen’s own admission that “the Bible distinguishes appearance from reality” (Always Ready, p. 181) and its implications for the emotional soliloquy he provides here. Granting the view that Bahnsen cites here (which I’d think a Christian would need to grant, since it comes from “the Bible” itself), something may appear to be a way, but the reality is something partly or entirely different. I’ve already addressed this here.

But the problems here are much worse than simply cleaning up after Bahnsen. If one brings to his understanding of his experiences the subjective inclinations of the primacy of consciousness metaphysics, imagining a consciousness “back of” (as Van Til would put it) everything one observes is going to follow naturally. If we start with the primacy of consciousness, we’re going to assume everything finds its source in consciousness. But again, what is the starting point? We have a choice here. Are we to take the emotions we experience when watching the sun set over a lake and grind them through the fog of a worldview which resists identifying an objective starting point and couches everything in terms of the primacy of wishing in order to extract philosophical insights? Or, do we start with existence, apply our reason, observe the fundamental distinction between reality and imagination, and identify what we observe per the normative standard of objectivity?

Again, when I pick up a pebble in my backyard and examine it, what exactly am I to find in that pebble that serves as evidence that it was created by an act of consciousness? I certainly do not observe consciousness creating it. Nor do any features of the pebble suggest in any way that its origin is subjective in nature. However, I can imagine that it was created by consciousness. Similarly, I can look at a beautiful landscape or a glorious sunset, marvel at a newborn baby or wince at the moral injustices I observe in history and imagine that these were caused by a conscious being. But then I’d be imagining, and I know when I’m imagining. I’ve learned to recognize the difference between observing and imagining, and I have come to the conclusion that religion trades on blurring this distinction, just as we see Anderson doing here.

Anderson adds:
It actually takes some concerted mental effort to suppress belief in God! (WSIBC, p. 136)
I find this rather ironic. Look at the labor that believers, whether they’re certified theologians or Sunday school back-benchers, find themselves engaging in just to keep their faith inflated. The constant huffing and puffing required to sustain religious beliefs is most visible of course in church attendance. I’m reminded of the Jethro Tull song in which the singer protests that the god he believes in is “not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.” But Christianity’s god is! Whether it’s the officiator of ceremonies or the layperson, or even the non-denominational basement dweller, the need to keep feeding god-belief is indeed constant, for its appetite on man’s soul is insatiable as it grows in its occupation of one’s conscious faculties. For without the sustenance of positive reinforcement, whether it’s fellowship with other believers, prayer, devotionals, handing out tracts on street corners, watching church TV, devouring theology books or honing the latest and greatest argument to defeat those dastardly atheists, the believer’s god could very well die the sad death of a neglected Tamagotchi. It is after all a belief, but not recognizing the difference between belief and knowledge, even seminary graduates flip unmindfully between the two.

It’s at this point that Anderson provides a footnote which quotes a statement Francis Crick makes in his book What Mad Pursuit. The statement is: “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved” (p. 138).

For context, let’s enlarge the quote to see if Crick is saying what Anderson understands him to be saying:
What is found in biology is mechanisms, mechanisms built with chemical components that are often modified by other, later, mechanisms added to the earlier ones. While Occam’s razor is a useful tool in the physical sciences, it can be a very dangerous implement in biology. It is thus very rash to use simplicity and elegance as a guide in biological research. While DNA could be claimed to be both simple and elegant, it must be remembered that DNA almost certainly originated fairly close to the origin of life when things were necessarily simple or they could not have got going.  
Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved. It might be thought, therefore, that evolutionary arguments would play a large part in guiding that biological research, but this is far from the case. It is difficult enough to study what is happening now. To try to figure out exactly what happened in evolution is even more difficult. Thus evolutionary arguments can usefully be used as hints to suggest possible lines of research, but it is highly dangerous to trust them too much. It is all too easy to make mistaken inferences unless the process involved is already very well understood. (What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery, pp. 138-139)
Crick characterizes the findings he has in mind as “mechanisms,” and readers will naturally find themselves associating these with man-made artifacts that are likewise called “mechanisms,” like photocopiers and automobile engines, i.e., to things that are designed. The proper understanding of “design” is not to imagine a supernatural consciousness which wishes things into existence, but to reference the arduous labor of human thinkers who set out to solve challenges, not by commanding reality to shape-shift in conformity with their dictates, but by applying Bacon’s dictum “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” The proper understanding of the concept of ‘design’, then, involves its roots in the primacy of existence and man’s need to work the identity of the materials he utilizes to achieve certain ends successfully: reality does not obey consciousness – consciousness must obey reality. I see no reason to suppose that a subjective understanding of ‘design’, such as we find in religion given its assumption of the primacy of wishing as opposed to the primacy of existence, is what Crick has in mind here. To the degree that Crick does have such a view in mind, I would wager that he may in fact be warning his readers to keep any mystical presuppositions they may have been raised with in check. This is a far cry from the willful “suppression” of a “truth” someone supposedly “just knows” that Anderson is apparently reading into this passing aside.

(As for the so-called “argument from design,” Douglas Krueger chronicles its numerous failings in his book What Is Atheism? A Short Introduction, pp 135-143.)

Anderson continues:
Knowing that there is a God is as natural and normal as knowing that there is a distinction between right and wrong and that our lives actually count for something. (WSIBC, p. 136)
See what I mean? We’re back to characterizing it as “knowing,” when in fact a moment ago it was a belief, not knowledge at all. Besides, I have already proven that knowledge necessarily implies non-theism.

A more fundamental question here is: Is it natural to confuse what one imagines with what is real? If one finds doing this “natural,” he has some serious cognitive rehabilitation to undertake. And while it’s very common for people to reach adulthood and still maintain the childish habit of pretending what they imagine is real, it’s not very common for those who do reach adulthood with such bad habits to free themselves from dependence on them. But it is possible, and I think grasping the primacy of existence principle is key here. As Porter puts it:
I think the primacy of existence is the most important issue in philosophy. I think it’s the real axiom of Objectivism. (Ayn Rand’s Theory of Knowledge, p. 198)
I agree. But it will take some severe self-honesty, a virtue which the Christian devotional system effectively squelches by sabotaging cognition and leading the believer down a path of endless distractions. I know from my own experience, my rejection of Christianity followed naturally from my choice to be honest. As a Christian, I was suppressing my own awareness of the fact that I was imagining all along when I believed in Jesus, in God, in the narratives of the holy storybook. And this suppression of a factual recognition was precisely what Christianity and its ministers encouraged me to do. It was when I finally made the decision to be honest about this that the whole fa├žade of religious devotion began to dissolve, and it dissolved almost instantaneously. For I did marvel as I began to take stock of all the things I needed to imagine in order to be a faithful Christian believer. More than I could enumerate in one sitting, that’s for sure! I remember thinking how foolish I was, asking myself in utter humiliation, “Dawson, how did you let yourself do this? How did you let yourself be conned into confusing your imagination with reality?” It was a short time after this that I found myself in a cramped little bookstore in San Francisco’s West Portal district, and as I was trying to make room for a rather large customer to pass through one of the aisles, I saw the name “Ayn Rand” on the spine of a small paperback. I had remembered watching The Fountainhead some years earlier and recognized the name. So I pulled it from the shelf and read the first paragraph of the Preface:
This book is intended for those who wish to assume the responsibility of becoming the new intellectuals. It contains the main philosophical passages from my novels and presents the outline of a new philosophical system.
What was this? “…new intellectuals...,” “…a new philosophical system…”? I think what grabbed me most was the paragraph’s challenge “to assume the responsibility” described here, for it really hooked me. I had already discovered, the hard way, that the life of a religious mystic was not for me. I hungered and thirsted for something better than that! I had already rejected the pretentious approach to viewing the world; now I was ready for the responsibility of becoming an honest thinker, and this was my new beginning. And on my way home that day, I could hardly put down my new treasure, For the New Intellectual.

Anderson asks:
So if a Creator’s existence is so evident, why are there atheists? And why do religious people have disagreements about God? Again, Christianity has its answer: although everyone knows some basic truths about God through His creation, we suppress this knowledge because we don’t like those truths. (WSIBC, pp. 136-137)
This too is quite an admission, for the “answer” that Christianity, according to Anderson, has to these questions hinges on likes. This is a key give-away. Accordingly, atheists don’t like what Christianity styles as “truths,” which allegedly explains why they’re atheists. Likewise, then, we must infer that Christians do like those alleged truths, which is why they’re Christians. By casting the matter in terms of likes and dislikes, the apologist effectively blocks out of his awareness the question of being honest on the matter.

In the believer’s race to convince himself that non-believers do not actually have a legitimate right to independent thought and valid reasons not to believe what religionists claim (for we only learn of theistic claim from other people, not from reality itself), he’s willing to expose the fact that in the end commitment to the religious view of the world is a strictly volitional act: one wants to believe that theism is true. Christian apologist Mike Licona admitted as much in a recorded discussion about Jesus’ resurrection when he exclaimed, “I want it to be true.” But apologists do not sneer at this – presumably an orientation towards truth that hinges on personal preference is acceptable when its outcome is pro-theistic.

But does this not suggest that the charge that atheists are atheists because of their likes, dislikes or personal preference, is really an expression of the believer’s own defensive projections? After all, how does James Anderson know what other people – people he’s never even met – like or dislike? What gives him license to speak for others like this? Notice the pretended authority on display here. No analysis is given to support the universal characterization he wants to impress on his readers, and readers are apparently supposed to believe what he says here without any rational support.

But the charge that atheists are atheists because they don’t like “the truth” of theism would make sense on the presupposition that allegiance to theism ultimately boils down to personal likes. In fact, I would argue that the charge stems from theism’s basis in the primacy of consciousness, the metaphysics of wishing makes it so. In effect, the primacy of consciousness essentially says “that’s true because I want it to be true,” for a reality in which consciousness holds metaphysical primacy, reality would conform to whatever consciousness dictates. And since theism does in fact assume the primacy of consciousness, and in the final analysis the primacy of consciousness entails the view that reality conforms to wishes, preferences, likes and the such, it would only be consistent for the believer to project that non-believers are following their own likes and dislikes when they reject theism, just as theists are. Of course, this does not follow, and more fundamentally reality does not conform to wishing or other conscious activity. So such projection is not rational, even if it were the case that some individual atheists have rejected theism because they don’t like it.

Anderson proceeds to give his own diagnosis:
Admittedly that sounds perverse on the face of it. Why would anyone not want to know the truth about God? The problem is not that we don’t want the truth, but rather that we don’t want that truth. We want the truth to be something else! The Christian view is that in our natural fallen state our ambitions and desires are corrupted, so that we’re profoundly self-centered rather than God-centered. The thought of God who has absolute authority over our lives, who makes moral demands and to whom we’re morally accountable, makes us extremely uncomfortable. And we have a remarkable capacity to rationalize away things that make us uncomfortable. (WSIBC, p. 137)
What Anderson serves up here is not so much “perverse” as it is fallacious, for it is essentially an ad hominem attack, and not just against non-believers. Notice Anderson’s use of the pronoun “we” here. By using the first person plural, at the very least Anderson includes himself in the range of his implication: he’s speaking for himself here first and foremost. This supports the suspicion that his above charge was in fact a case of projection.

If it is in fact true that the god of Christian theism is actually imaginary, then Christian believers are prime candidates for denying “the truth about God.” They want to believe that their god is real, which means they “don’t want that truth,” namely the truth that their theism is based on what they are merely imagining and is thus a pretense. It is a fact that from our youngest waking years we human beings have the capacity to imagine, and as I have pointed out numerous times – even in my review of Anderson’s case for theism – we have no alternative but to imagine the god whose existence theistic arguments are supposed to prove when we arrive at their conclusions. And even more broadly, apart from arguments, as we have seen – I can look at a mountain range or a beautiful sunset and imagine that a supernatural consciousness made this all real, but this would be imagination at work. The truth here is that theism is just imaginary.

And here Anderson acknowledges that people have “the capacity to rationalize away things that make us uncomfortable.” What if what makes the believer uncomfortable is the fact that his theism depends on him ignoring the distinction between what is real and what is merely imaginary? If one is confessionally invested in something that is not true but seems true as a result of positively reinforcing one’s imagination and emotions in the desire that it be true, confronting the fact that what one believes as a result of such investment is in fact based in the imagination is of course going to be rather uncomfortable. So much the more so for someone who has pursued certifications in the field of doubling down on that belief and using it to indoctrinate others!

But even here the apologetic rationalization stumbles on itself. For to be consistent with Christianity given its overt determinism, Anderson would have to credit his god for the state of affairs he blames on atheists. If the believer in fact does truly believe that his “God controls whatsoever comes to pass” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 160), then he would have to concede that atheists are one set of existents the Christian god wished to create alongside everything else it is said to have created. Using the apostle Paul’s own analogy, the potter cannot blame the pot for the potter’s decision to fashion a pot instead of a plate! But this would not be the first time a Christian was inconsistent with his worldview’s stated presuppositions.

But Anderson still wants to draw the following conclusion:
Therefore, from a Christian perspective, if someone has trouble believing in God then the problem is internal rather than external. Unbelief isn’t due to a shortage of available evidence or reasons. It’s not that belief in God doesn’t make sense. On the contrary, only belief in God makes sense in the end. When atheists and agnostics live as though the universe is a rational, orderly place, as though there are objective moral standards, as though their fellow humans have real dignity and worth, and as though their own lives have genuine significance, they betray their debt to a biblical worldview and unwittingly confirm their dependence on God. (WSIBC, pp. 137-138)
So again, we have an ad hominem here: you don’t believe because there’s something wrong with you! Indeed morally wrong! Christians often charge that atheists reject Christianity because they “love sin so much.” But this too is likely just more projection, or it’s just a recitation of what their pastors told them to say in their encounters with the world. And yet it is their worldview which condemns the entire human race as innately depraved to begin with. It is not a positive message at all, but in fact rests on a deeply pessimistic evaluation of man as such. This is why the apologist finds it so easy to retreat to the ad hominem here. It is not at all persuasive and in fact comes across as deep-seated resentment, as if to say: “You don’t believe in my imaginary being, so I don’t like you anymore!”

But again, if one is being honest, should he not acknowledge the distinction between what is real and what he is merely imagining? And if, by making the determination to be honest no matter how uncomfortable it may be, he discovers that his god-beliefs were based on what he had been imagining all along, is it in fact a moral fault to accept this fact and work to develop a worldview that takes reality as its metaphysical standard instead of his imagination? At no point do I find any of the presuppositionalists’ arguments taking explicit care to observe the distinction between reality and imagination and warning believers not to trip themselves up by confusing the one with the other. If we are supposed to look at a sunset and draw from our emotional impressions of it that there must be a supernatural consciousness that exists outside the universe, how exactly are we supposed to do this without imagination? And yet, if I honestly acknowledge the role that my imagination had been playing, straight out of central casting, in erecting and sustaining my god-belief all along, my “problem is internal rather than external”? It’s a problem to begin with? Exactly whose problem is it? I see it as a victory over mysticism. I can get however that the believer finds it most uncomfortable, if not downright threatening. I know – I was in his shoes myself!

Anderson says that “those who claim to be ‘honest skeptics’ need to apply an honest skepticism to their own hearts” (WSIBC, p. 138). And I agree! If only believers would do this and be willing to confront the fact that their imagination is working overtime. If I’m wrong, then please explain to me how one can rationally arrive at a belief in god by (a) starting with the fact that existence exists, (2) consistently observing the fact that existence exists independent of consciousness, and (3) applying care not to confuse what we might imagine with what is real.

Again, we need to keep in mind that the nature of man’s consciousness is not to be misrepresented. Pretending to know something and actually knowing it are two different things, and we should all, believer and non-believer alike, grasp this difference and keep it in mind. When Anderson states on p. 125 of his book that “the Christian worldview… affirms that mind preceded matter. Not human minds, of course, but God’s mind,” he is implicitly acknowledging that man’s mind does not have the supernatural abilities that believers imagine their god has. Indeed, man has a specific way of discovering and validating knowledge, and that way must be consistent with the nature of his mind. This is the point of Dawson’s razor:
If one concedes the fact that the primacy of existence accurately characterizes the relationship between his own consciousness and the objects of his consciousness (e.g., he acknowledges that his own wishing will not turn a coffee cup into a Ferrari), then his philosophical affirmations and epistemological methodology must be wholly consistent with the primacy of existence metaphysics.
So if the believer admits that his own consciousness does not create reality or that the things which exist in the universe do not conform to his own commands, beliefs, wishing, imagination, and other forms of conscious activity, then what epistemological process can he explain which outlines an inference from the facts we are aware of right here on earth by means of perception to the claims of theism? Or, how does one use an epistemology premised on the primacy of existence to validate notions which assume the primacy of consciousness, which contradicts the primacy of existence? Blank out.

Citing Jeremiah 17:9, Anderson states:
As the Bible warns, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things’. Indeed, the human capacity for self-deception knows no bounds. We can even deceive ourselves about whether we’re self-deceived! (WSIBC, p. 138)
Frankly, I’d have thought Anderson would be a little more careful than to issue universal statements like this about human beings generally, for again we must assume that he’s including himself in the indictment he levels here. How do we know that Anderson is not deceiving us, his readers? And how do we know that Anderson hasn’t deceived himself about whether he’s self-deceived? The biblical evaluation of man is that he is depraved from birth (even conception!) and thus inherently inclined towards evil, transgression, deception, etc. Thus the Christian worldview implicates its own representatives first and foremost. And if Anderson has really confused what he imagines with what is real and is suppressing his awareness of this such that he can pretend that what he imagines is really real, then he is self-deceived. It’s up to him if he’s going to admit this or not.

Anderson continues his sermon:
We can be truly perverse: disbelieving things because we don’t want them to be true, and then working hard to find some kind of rational justification for our doubts, all the while patting ourselves on the back for being ‘rational freethinkers’ who ‘just follow the evidence’. The grand irony is that: if it weren’t for God, there would be no rational thinkers at all and no universe to be rationally understood. (WSIBC, p. 138)
The way I see it, we each face a number of fundamental choices. The first choice is whether or not to think. This would entail critically evaluating our beliefs, and we would need a standard for this. Clearly there are a number of key facts which provide this standard, namely the fact that existence exists independent of our conscious activity, that wishing does not make it so, that the imaginary is not real, and so on. In my estimation, it is a great personal achievement if one was raised up to accept a primitive worldview which essentially decapitated his ability to think and then later in life, through a series of choices and hard work came to shake off that primitive worldview, discover his capacity to think rationally and structure his mind, his ideas and his life according to rational principles. Believers will want to denigrate this as “pride,” which it is! Only for the believer pride is a vice, but for the rational man, pride is a virtue:
Pride is the recognition of the fact that you are your own highest value and, like all of man’s values, it has to be earned—that of any achievements open to you, the one that makes all others possible is the creation of your own character—that your character, your actions, your desires, your emotions are the products of the premises held by your mind—that as man must produce the physical values he needs to sustain his life, so he must acquire the values of character that make his life worth sustaining—that as man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul—that to live requires a sense of self-value, but man, who has no automatic values, has no automatic sense of self-esteem and must earn it by shaping his soul in the image of his moral ideal, in the image of Man, the rational being he is born able to create, but must create by choice—that the first precondition of self-esteem is that radiant selfishness of soul which desires the best in all things, in values of matter and spirit, a soul that seeks above all else to achieve its own moral perfection, valuing nothing higher than itself—and that the proof of an achieved self-esteem is your soul’s shudder of contempt and rebellion against the role of a sacrificial animal, against the vile impertinence of any creed that proposes to immolate the irreplaceable value which is your consciousness and the incomparable glory which is your existence to the blind evasions and the stagnant decay of others. (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged)
Yep, it’s something one needs to earn. It’s a great responsibility, having a mind. I would that more people take it seriously.

Christianity is a worldview which abhors pride, especially the kind of pride Rand describes here. A worldview which teaches individuals that they cannot take pride in their own achievements is a worldview which cheats him out of all capacity for success. This is why Christianity celebrates failure (“meekness”) and sacrifice (“selflessness”).

Towards the end of his book, Anderson considers the possibility that the reader who has made it thus far is still not convinced. He writes:
Perhaps you’re not persuaded by the case I’ve offered. Perhaps you don’t think there are enough reasons – or enough good reasons – to believe that Christianity is true. If so, let me say that I’m thankful you’ve taken the time to read this book and I appreciate the fact that you’re willing to think through the issues. But let me leave you with this one question to ponder:  
What’s the alternative?  
If Christianity isn’t true, then what is true? (WSIBC, pp. 219-220)
Anderson repeats the question on p. 207, so apparently he really would like to know what the alternative to Christianity is. Consider the following:
- the alternative to starting with non-existence is starting with the fact that existence exists;  
- the alternative to starting with a form of emotion (cf. Prov. 1:7) is the axioms of existence, identity and consciousness;  
- the alternative to the metaphysics of wishing makes it so is the primacy of existence;  
- the alternative to supernaturalism is objectivity;  
- the alternative to miracles is the law of identity applied to action;  
- the alternative to the storybook worldview is adherence to facts as the informing content of knowledge;  
- the alternative to looking inward to find the source of knowledge is looking outward at the world of perceptual concretes;  
- the alternative to beliefs accepted on someone’s say so is knowledge validated firsthand by a rational standard;  
- the alternative to prayer is rationally guided action;  
- the alternative to determinism is cognitive self-regulation;  
- the alternative to self-sacrifice is rational self-interest;  
- the alternative to unearned guilt is the purpose of life is to live and enjoy it;  
- the alternative to a worldview based in the imagination is logical reduction to perceptual input  
- the alternative to revelations is thinking with your own mind.
In a nutshell, the alternative is Objectivism, just as the alternative to Objectivism is some form of subjectivism.

The choice couldn’t be clearer. 

by Dawson Bethrick

2 comments:

Robert Kidd said...

Dawson,

Have really enjoyed this series. I for one enjoy the length and thoroughness of your articles and find this blog to be one of the best resources on the web regarding Objectivism. You are a very gifted writer. Thank you for all your work.

Robert Kidd, student of Objectivism

Ydemoc said...

Awesome, Dawson! Thanks once again!

Ydemoc