Friday, April 22, 2005

Paul's Argument from Desperation

Often Christian apologists present statements, some more elaborate than others, which do not bear refuting simply because no discernable argument has been presented. Rather, what is often presented is a series of confessional affirmations which themselves say very little that is philosophically important while providing a glimpse into the superficial conceptions assumed by the believer. Such is the case with the statement that I will be examining in what follows.
In his blog Reformed Theology And Man's Coherence in Experience, presuppositional apologist Paul Manata presents what some might think is an argument, either one defending his Christian theism, or one against non-Christian philosophies. Exactly which he intends, is not clear. All the same, however, he opens his blog with the claim that "Reformed theology alone provides coherence to man's experience." This is an explicit claim to exclusivity on behalf of a particular branch of Christian theology called "reformed" theology, a set of teachings which has its basis or is at any rate strongly associated with the teachings of John Calvin. As a system of apologetics, presuppositionalism is most typically associated with the reformed school of theology. And just as common as claims to exclusivity like the one Paul gives here, is the neglected onus to prove a negative when it comes to defending such claims. For in essence he is claiming that no other position accomplishes what he says his position accomplishes. How does he prove this? Or should we ask, does he prove it?

The Notion of "Providing" Coherence
It is also common for presuppositional apologists to speak of their worldview "providing" something that other worldviews allegedly do not or cannot provide. The question at this point is, What does it mean to say that a worldview "provides coherence to man's experience"? What does it mean to "provide" coherence to anything? (Such expressions suggest the image of a waitress wandering from table to table, dishing out helpings of "coherence" - however conceived - wherever needed, perhaps for a small fee.) The statement that reformed theology "provides coherence to man's experience" suggests that coherence is not inherent in experience as such (or at least an integral part of experience), and that coherence therefore must be imported into experience, perhaps by the adoption of a certain outlook or acceptance of certain confessional affirmations. But it's not clear why one would assume this. Where is it proven that coherence is not inherent in one's experience (thus doing away with the need for a source that "provides" it)? Who decides what those confessional affirmations are sufficient to "provide coherence" if coherence is not inherent in experience, and on what basis is this decided? If the apologist says that his god is the agent that decides these things, wouldn't that be begging the question? (Or does he excuse himself from proving such claims?) As stated, the presuppositionalist's claim that his worldview "alone provides coherence to man's experience" suggests the belief that one's experience is somehow endowed with "coherence" (however that is conceived or defined) at the mere assent to the tenets of that worldview. By declaring this to others, however, the presuppositionalist seems to be granting that his readers already have coherence in experience insofar as he expects them to understand what he's saying. So on this count such claims seem rather self-defeating if the intended readership is expected to be composed of non-believers. If the readership is expected to be other like-minded believers, then the apologist is simply preaching to the choir and his point is merely academic at best. (This would, however, explain the lack of argumentation for his overall position).

Paul then tells us that
Only reformed theology rightly teaches about the doctrines of: total depravity (Rom. 5:12), the Sovereignty of God (Dan. 4:35), the distinction between Creator and creature (Isa. 55:8), and the all-controlling providence of God which governs all events in history (Eph. 1:11).
And while non-reformed Christians would certainly take issue with such statements, it's unclear what these issues have to do with "man's coherence in experience." Nonetheless, Paul wants to explain how denying these four points somehow implies that one's "worldview is chaos."

He begins by declaring that "the unbeliever presupposes that he can interpret reality and himself without the need of revelation." Is this true? As a Christian, Paul no doubt means revelation from the Christian god (i.e., the bible) as opposed to revelations from any non-Christian gods. If in fact I, as an atheist, "presuppose" that I "can interpret reality and [myself] without the need of [the Christian god's] revelation," I don't do this any more than I "presuppose" that I can do these very things "without the need" of, say, the Muslim god's "revelation" in the Koran or Geusha's "revelation" in the Tritsat-lak. If in fact I do actively presuppose that I can think and reason without these sources of revelation, why does Paul only have a problem when I don't presuppose his god's revelation? In fact, Paul's statement is just as arbitrary as saying "You presuppose that you don't have to be a fish in order to drink water" or "You presuppose that you can get yourself to work without needing a pterodactyl to carry you there." For indeed I don't think I need to be a fish to drink water, and I don't think I need a pterodactyl to carry me to my workplace. But can it accurately be said that I actively presuppose such contraries? If Paul thinks his statement is any less arbitrary than these other charges, he needs to argue for it.

Also, I've always wondered what presuppositionalists specifically mean by the expression "interpret reality." This expression occurs in numerous places in books like Van Til's The Defense of the Faith (cf. pp. 15, 38, 114, 201, et al.) and Bahnsen's Van Til's Apologetic: Readings & Analysis (cf. pp. 52, 201, 467, 640-641, et al.). I don't see where these authors explain what they mean by this phrase. Is this another loaded expression? Or is it just another term borrowed from academia? Perhaps this term is more accurate than presuppositionalists would like to admit, for it is a hallmark of the religious mindset to interpret everything according to the dogmatic template of a primitive, illusory paradigm that needs to be constantly maintained through active reinforcement and repetition (learning bible quotes is very handy for this).

Also, Paul talks of "the need of revelation." By this he presumably means all human beings need the revelation of Paul's god. But where does he show that man qua man needs any revelation to begin with? Is this an objective need, such as man's need for food? Or is this a comfort need, something that makes the believer feel better or safe in some way, and thus projected on this basis onto all men without proof or factual support? This strikes me as just more presumption to exclusivity without proper warrant. Again, do I "presuppose" that I can reason "without the need" for Allah's "revelation"? To even consider such questions, would the Koran have to be true as a precondition? A Muslim could easily say yes. But Christians would likely answer such questions negatively (indeed, do Christians "presuppose" that they can "interpret" reality and themselves without the "need" of the Koranic revelation?), and yet they say these very same things replacing Islam's Koran with Christianity's biblical revelation. Again, if Paul thinks there is a significant objective difference which favors the one as against the other, he needs to do more than merely assume it if he wants his apologetic to be persuasive.

So if the apologist wants to accuse non-Christians of any kind of wrongdoing here, namely presuming that he can thwart "the need of revelation," he has two primary burdens:

1) prove that man has any "need of revelation" in the first place
2) prove that this need is for the Christian revelation as opposed to some other revelation

I don't see that Paul has met either of these burdens in the space of his short blog, and yet he assumes the truth of both points in his assertions.

Of the non-Christian, Paul writes that "He takes himself as the standard and judge." Standard of what? It's not clear since Paul does not specify. Do I take myself to be the standard of mathematical principles? No, I certainly do not. Do I take myself to be the standard of planetary motion? No, I do not. Do I take myself to be the standard of temporal measurement? No, I don't. I could list many such counter-examples. So Paul needs to be more specific here instead of just reciting what he's read in some nifty apologetics book. Perhaps he means standard of judgment. Do I take myself as a judge? Well, what is judgment? Paul does not specify, so I must fill in the blank here. By judgment I mean evaluation of a given concrete by reference to an abstract principle or standard. A judge is someone who does this. And yes, I do judge the things I am confronted with all the time. If I didn't do this, how could I live? Every time I need to eat, I need to judge the food set before me as suitable for my consumption. Every time I select someone to be my friend or business associate, I have to judge that person worthy of my friendship or business. Is Paul saying that one should not do this? If not, what is he saying? Is he saying one should suspend judgment on these things and wait for an invisible magic being to come down and do his thinking for him? Sorry, I can't wait for that, I need to eat.

Paul complains that the non-Christian "assumes that he is perfectly capable of judging matters of reason and morality by looking to himself as the final reference point." Well, I am a non-Christian, so it appears that Paul is trying to speak for me, even though he has not consulted me on this matter. But it is true that I do think with my own mind, and perhaps this is what the Christian ultimately objects to: since the Christian has rejected his own mind in preference for a pretended surrogate (cf. "the mind of Christ" - I Cor. 2:16), he resents those who do not do likewise (perhaps this is the source of his jealousy that he shares with his god). Also, contrary to the Christian, "the final reference point" of my thought are the objects of my awareness (objectivity), not my feelings or wishes or whims (subjectivism) as Christianity models. Where my thoughts are governed by the nature of those things which I consider (such as my biological needs and the actions I need to take in order to achieve my values), the Christian's thoughts are governed by imaginary notions which have no basis in reality whatsoever, such as invisible magic beings which float through the nethersphere issuing commandments and dictating the nature of reality according to its subjective whims. And here he is saying that I have no basis for rational judgment?

Paul worries that my "view denies total depravity." But I do not deny the fact that Christianity is a totally depraved worldview. What I reject is Christianity's doctrine of unearned guilt - the view that all men are guilty from birth due to the actions of one man (cf. Rom. 5:12), that guilt is something inherited, like skin color or certain diseases (as John Frame puts it, "We today bear the guilt of Adam's first sin," Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 53). In my worldview, guilt is a consequence of the immoral action chosen by the acting agent. But Christianity discards morality by making guilt a metaphysical condition of man's nature (since they think it can be passed on from generation to generation). It should be no wonder that Jesus did not teach a morality of values but instead taught men to obey commands as if they were mindless sheep rather than men who can think on their own. Thinking for oneself (what presuppositionalism refers to as "autonomous reasoning") is anathema to the Christian worldview, since the human mind is to be considered dangerous and in need of submission. History shows that any dictator has the same fear of other minds that Christians have. A non-believer's rationality then is rightly considered by the Christian to be a dire threat to his well-coddled primitive beliefs.

According to Paul, the rejection of Christianity's doctrine of total depravity "leads to man denying his createdness and setting himself, as it were, up as God." But even if one accepted the unargued claim that man were "created" by an invisible magic being, wouldn't he wonder how it could be the case that he as a "creation" is "totally depraved" when his "creator" is allegedly perfect and totally good? How can depravity have its source in non-depravity? Such questions are ultimately unanswerable on Christianity's own premises. Their usual response of course is to blame the creation for the creation's faults, even though those creations, on Christianity's own premises, did not create themselves. Go figure.

Paul continues: "On his view" - that is, on the non-Christian's view - "facts are random and not sovereignly determined by God." Clearly Paul is assuming a false dichotomy here: either facts are "sovereignly determined by God," or they are simply "random." But it doesn't follow from the rejection of belief in invisible magic beings that one therefore thinks that "facts are random." The error Paul makes here is one that is repeatedly modeled in the presuppositionalist literature, namely treating the concept 'random' as if it had a metaphysical application, when in fact its proper application is in epistemology. To be sure, many non-Christians make this mistake as well, but it is simple to correct. When we say something is random, we are not saying something about the nature of reality as such (such as that the law of causality does not or cannot apply), but about our own lack of understanding or knowledge of an action's causes. To "randomly" pick a card from a full deck does not imply that there was no causality to the action of selecting a card and withdrawing it from the rest. Rather, it simply means that we don't expect to know the face of the card we are pulling until we turn it over and look at it. But this is not what presuppositionalists tend to mean. Presuppositionalists tend to mean by 'random' the same thing they mean by 'chance'. According to presuppositionalism, 'chance' refers to "events that occur without cause or reason" (see John Frame's A Van Til Glossary). But this is certainly not at all what rational thinkers would mean when they say that something happens "by chance," for even if something is said to happen by chance, one is not denying that certain causes brought it about, but that those causes were either not choreographed or that they're just not fully known or understood in detail at the time. In a non-cartoon universe, there is nothing wrong with this. If for instance during my lunch hour I'm walking through the city and bump into an old co-worker whom I haven't seen in over ten years, I might say I came upon her "by chance." But in characterizing our meeting in this way, I am in no way denying that various causes lead up to it. So it is important for those who might debate presuppositionalists to be on the lookout for their superficial handling of concepts such as we find in Paul's blog.

Contrary to Paul's claim, I hold that facts are absolute in the sense that they do not depend on someone's wishing (either man's or a deity's). For instance, it is a fact that Greenland is larger in area than Oahu, and no one's wishing can change this. Contrast this with what Christianity teaches: it teaches that all facts are subject to its god's will, which means it could wish that Oahu was larger in area than Greenland (after all, the bible says that one can cast a mountain into the sea if he wishes hard enough). And how could anyone know if and when the Christian god is going to decide to make Oahu larger in area than Greenland? Unless the apologist himself is omniscient, he would not know what his god's future plans have in store for either Greenland or Oahu. For all he knows, his god could relocate Manhattan to the northernmost point of Greenland and then turn around and relocate Greenland to the South Pacific. Is the Christian presupposing that his god won't do these things? Would those attending the wedding at Cana (cf. John 2:1-11) be wrong for presupposing that the substance in the pots was water and not wine? For the Christian, everything is random, since he does not have knowledge of his god's plan (if he says he does know his god's plan, ask him where the Dow Jones index will finish next week). So we have here another ironic situation in which the presuppositionalist accuses non-believing philosophies of the very problem that Christianity itself is saddled with. That problem is: In a cartoon universe, there is no certainty whatsoever. Even all bets are off. For any claim to certainty about anything in the world, then, the apologist must borrow from the objective worldview of the atheist.

In spite of all these subtle problems that presuppositionalism glosses over, Paul holds that seeing facts as something other than "being related by God's plan" somehow "destroys unity in man's experience." Contrary to his earlier implication that "coherence" must be "provided" to experience, presumably from without, Paul's statement here suggests that "unity" is inherent in experience already but is somehow "destroyed" when one sees facts as something other than "being related by God's plan." Indeed, what in the world could be meant by the notion that facts are "related by God's plan" anyway? And if one does not know the fullness of "God's plan," how could he see facts as they are allegedly "related" in that alleged "plan"? Surely Paul Manata is not saying he's omniscient, is he? Instead of addressing such questions, Paul focuses his scrutiny on the would-be non-believer that he invents for purposes of demonstrating his dismantling skills while neglecting to attend the fire that's ravaging throughout his house.

To show that any view of facts which does not see them as "being related by God's plan" amounts to a position that "destroys unity in man's experience," Paul asks "If the facts are random and not determined by God's plan then what ties together one experience to the next?" Apparently he thinks there's nothing apart from his god that "ties together one experience to the next." Thus Paul seems to be setting up an argument from ignorance which basically goes as follows: Since I don't know what could tie one experience to another besides God, it must be the case that those who disbelieve in God have nothing that "ties together one experience to the next." Meanwhile, it's not clear what Paul means by "experience" or what he means by "tying" one experience to another. In fact, since it's obvious that consciousness is continuous awareness of objects over time (this is obvious because we perceive objects in action and time is a measurement of motion), it seems he's setting up yet another presuppositionalist non-problem if by 'experience' Paul means conscious experience. So far his presumption that non-believers must assume that "facts are random" has been shown to be wrong, and an answer can easily be supplied to his question about what "ties together one experience to the next."

Then, as if on schedule, Paul appeals to David Hume: "David Hume showed that we could never have epistemological justification for a necessary causal connection between events based on empiricist dogma." It's not clear why Paul gives any worthy consideration to Hume, but it's probably because Van Til and Bahnsen did before him, and he's simply trying to emulate their techniques (he might even believe those techniques are effective!). To be sure, Hume was misguided on many things, and the assumption, habitually parroted in the presuppositionalist literature, that Hume speaks for all non-believing philosophies, shows a profound lack of familiarity with philosophical trends since the eighteenth century. Sure, Hume has been influential, and so has Bertrand Russell, but neither speak for all atheists, no matter how inconvenient this fact is for Christian apologists. Regarding causality, Hume's error was his working model, namely that causality is a relationship between one event and another, and it was in part this faulty basis that lead him to his skeptical conclusions. Since Hume saw causality as a relationship between events, nothing could stop him from concluding that causality had no necessary relationships (indeed, on this basis, what would suggest that causality had any necessity?). But this view of causality is wrong. Causality is a relationship between an entity and its own actions, and this is a relationship of necessary dependence. This correction, along with the objective theory of concepts, is sufficient to avoid the hazards of Hume's fatalistic skepticism.

Paul then argues that "because autonomy necessarily involves one in an ego-centric predicament there would no intelligible basis to say that there is anything objectively in common between one experience and the next." By autonomy I take presuppositionalists to mean thinking with one's own mind (I make this point in my blog Christianity vs. Objective Morality). But it's not clear what Paul means by "an ego-centric predicament" or how thinking with one's own mind "necessarily involves one" in such a predicament. Though it's not at all clear (and Paul doesn't explain it), he might mean a predicament of pure self-reference. But it's not the case that thinking with one's own mind would lead one into a predicament of pure self-reference, since the thinking in question could very well (and typically does) include reference to objects other than oneself; and even if those thoughts are about oneself, they are not void of a context which includes reference to objects other than oneself. Indeed, it appears that Paul is trying to assemble yet another argument from ignorance whose intention is to denigrate those who don't believe in Paul's god. He says that "objective commonality presupposes order (e.g., laws, universals, sameness)." But this is a given in the very fact of existence: to exist is to be something. That's the law of identity. Because existence exists, we don't need to posit a supernatural source for the law of identity. Thus Objectivism's axioms answer Paul's next question: "if man does not take God's revelation of laws as being an expression of His universal and unchanging mind then how can the unbeliever account for them?" One merely needs to point to the axioms to identify the foundation for what we call laws of nature and logic. It appears Paul is not aware of this, or he's hoping that his readers don't have such understanding. It is in this manner that presuppositionalism depends on compound ignorance. The presuppositionalist commonly relies on the tactic of asking questions which are implied to have no answer except one pointing to the presuppositionalist's god. This was a common rhetorical device used by the apostle Paul in his letters. But a question is not an argument, and Paul is in desperate need of an argument.

Typical to the presuppositionalist tactic, Paul follows up his question with another: "He could say that they exist and are objective. But then how would he know this based on his limited experience?" In a footnote he refers to A. J. Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic "for non-Christian approval of this point." What point? Paul asked a question; he didn't make a point. Also, Paul risks making the very dangerous error of assuming that any one non-Christian speaks for all non-Christians. And though this would be convenient, it would commit the fallacy of guilt by association. Non-believers tend to be freely thinking individuals, and thus it is an error to presume they speak with uniformity on any matter, as we should expect from those who confess allegiance to a religion. But to answer Paul's question, we must ask what could possibly serve as a contrast to "limited experience." Does Paul really think that there's such a thing as "unlimited experience"? Indeed, it seems that experience would be limited to itself to the extent that it is real (since A is A just as a thing is not both itself and more than itself). And does Paul think one can only know something based on something other than one's own experience?

Paul then throws out a proposal that some non-believers might offer in response to his line of questioning: "He could say that say that man's mind creates the universals, but then we have subjectivism and an arbitrary imposition of laws on a lawless universe." Apparently the problem has moved from "coherence in man's experience" to the problem of universals. It would have been more fruitful if Paul had made this clear up front, for until this point he was treating "coherence in man's experience" as a separate matter. At any rate, if in fact "coherence in man's experience" were a genuine philosophical problem, wouldn't it have to be resolved prior to examining the problem of universals? Or, does Paul think that there is really only one problem at issue here, and that the answer to the one is also the answer to the other? It's not clear from what Paul does say. But his criticism of the proposal he throws out there seems, ironically, to target Christian theism insofar as it targets any position. For all the bible says, it might be the Christian view that the Christian god creates the universals. But as Paul points out, this amounts to subjectivism, and the Christian god's sovereign ordination of order on the universe sure would be difficult to distinguish from "an arbitrary imposition of laws on a lawless universe." For what laws would constrain a god like the Christian god, except those it personally creates and/or sanctions? Thankfully, however, we need not be held hostage to such a dismal and hopeless worldview, as we have available to us a truly objective worldview, one that embraces reason instead of faith, rational principles instead of fear, and life instead of unlife, that answers all these questions.

In his last paragraph, Paul affirms that "by saying that there is coherence in experience there must be order." What precisely he means by "order" here is not explained, but given his theistic commitments, it's most likely taken as an indicator of some supernatural source. If that's the case, he needs to argue for such a connection. Nevertheless, implicit in all this is the position that the non-Christian cannot "account for" the order allegedly presupposed by the affirmation of coherence in one's experience, for he wants it to be the case that this order must have a supernatural source that "transcends" the natural order. Of course, if this is the position that Paul set out to defend, he didn't do a very good job of it. Rather, what we have here is a long string of arguments from ignorance: Since Paul can't think of any way that one could "justify" the presumption of "order" on the basis of a worldview committed to a metaphysic of "chance," it must be the case that Christian theism is true. This is just the kind of "reasoning" one can expect from a presuppositionalist apologist: superficial, misrepresentative, uninformed. As can be readily seen, this argument from ignorance gives way to a non sequitur: even if some non-Christians did adhere to what the presuppositionalist calls a metaphysics of "chance," it wouldn't follow from this that Christian theism is true. Not by a long shot! Yet in the final analysis this is about the best presuppositionalism has to offer.

Paul concludes by quoting what appears to be an unserious argument from Van Til (one that is borne on overstated metaphor and slippery slope reasoning), but just in case Paul thinks anyone should take it seriously, it appears to take this form:

1) If you have a bottomless sea of chance (and)
2) If you, as an individual, are but a bit of chance (and)
3) By chance distinguished by other bits of chance, and
4) the law of contradiction has grown within you,
5) (Then) the imposition of this law on your environment is, granted it could take place, a perfectly futile activity.

It's not clear that this is even a valid inference, and it's certainly not an argument for Christian theism. But notice how it trades on using the concept 'chance' as if it referred to some kind of metaphysical property or force, a view which I obliterated above. At any rate, in response to Van Til, I would point out the following:

1) I don't have "a bottomless sea of chance"
2) I am a biological organism, not "but a bit of chance"
3) I am not "distinguished by other bits of chance."
4) The law of contradiction is not a plant that has "grown within" me.
5) Therefore, applying this law "on [my] environment" is not "a perfectly futile activity."

So there you have it. Even though no argument was presented, many commonly advanced presuppositionalist errors and misconceptions have been firmly answered and corrected. Thus we can safely conclude that, if all presuppositionalism can present is more of the same, it's completely and irrecoverably bankrupt. So if Paul thinks he's presented a genuine argument for Christian theism, it must be an argument from desperation.

by Dawson Bethrick

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

From the Horse's Mouth: Apologists Shooting Themselves in the Foot

Sometimes it's best just to let the apologists have their own say, while we sit back and watch them dig their own worldview's grave.

“God must always remain mysterious to man.”
– Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 14.

(Except to Van Til, of course!)

“To begin with then I take what the Bible says about God and his relation to the universe as unquestionably true on its own authority.”
– Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 195.

(He might as well say “The Bible is true because I want it to be true!”)

“A person with a wish to be fulfilled is often on the road to belief.”
– John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 37.

(Sort of says it all, doesn’t it?)

“We know without knowing how we know.”
– John Frame,
Presuppositional Apologetics: An Introduction (Part I)

(Finally one of them admits it!)

“Religious faith is something to die for.”
– Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, p. 14.

(So say Muslim suicide bombers. In fact, they even put this belief into practice!)

"I just believe that we are very good about lying to ourselves, and only accepting, uh, or interpreting the evidence the way we would like to."
– Christian apologist Phil Fernandes in his debate with JJ Lowder.

(He’s obviously speaking for himself!)

“In actuality, this autonomous man is dull, stubborn, boorish, obstinate and stupid.”
– Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready, p. 56.

(There’s nothing like that longsuffering Christian love!)

“Faith is the precondition of proper understanding.”
– Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready, p. 88.

(Which premise of TAG is this?)

“Empirical experience merely gives us an appearance of things; empirical experience cannot in itself correct illusions or get us beyond appearance to any world or realm of reality lying beyond.”
– Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready, p. 181.

(There goes Romans 1:20…)

"God has the right to command and be obeyed. He has, therefore, the right to tell us what we must believe."
– John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 51.

(Say goodbye to man's right to his own mind!)

"The entire human race is dead in trespass and sin, falling short of god's glory (Eph. 2:1, 5; Rom. 3:23; 5:15); as a result, no one seeks after God or has understanding (Rom. 3:10-12)."
– Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready, p. 84.

(Let me get this straight. No one has understanding? Not even Greg Bahnsen?)

"Christians are often befuddled about 'reason', not knowing whether it is something to embrace or eschew."
– Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready, p. 113.

(Indeed, what did Jesus say about reason?)

by Dawson Bethrick

Friday, April 15, 2005

Putting Paul's TAG to the Geusha Test

Sometimes theistic arguments are so frail and thin on content that they only need lighthearted parody to show their absurd implications. Such is the case with Paul Manata’s “transcendental argument” for the existence of the Christian god that he proposed in the comments section of Francois Tremblay’s blog Manata Ja-ja.

First, let's familiarize ourselves with the basic thrust of what presuppositionalists mean by "transcendental argument." The following is taken from Greg Bahnsen who is championed by many apologists today as the foremost exponent of presuppositionalism and TAG, the "transcendental argument for the existence of God":

"Transcendental reasoning is concerned to discover what general conditions must be fulfilled for any particular instance of knowledge to be possible; it has been central to the philosophies of secular thinkers such as Aristotle and Kant, and it has become a matter of inquiry in contemporary, analytically minded philosophy. [Christian apologist Cornelius] Van Til asks what view of man, mind, truth, language, and the world is necessarily presupposed by our conception of knowledge and our methods of pursuing it. For him, the transcendental answer is supplied at the very first step of man's reasoning - not by autonomous philosophical speculation, but by transcendent revelation from God." (Van Til's Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 5n.10.)

Obviously Bahnsen wanted to take this stuff seriously, for his own book on the matter is over 700 pages long! The overwhelming bulk of it, however, is preoccupied either with quoting his mentor Van Til at nauseating length, or obsessing over non-believers and their unwillingness to accept Bahnsen's religious claims on his say so. (I know, such nerve!)

Now here is the argument that Paul Manata offered after being repeatedly pressed to offer one:

Step 1 Prove A: God exists.
Step 2 Assume ¬A: God does not exist.
Step 3 If ¬A, then B: there are no laws of logic, uniformity of nature, and moral absolutes.
Step 4 ¬B: There are laws of logic, nature is uniform, and there are moral absolutes. Step 5 ¬¬A by Modus Tollens.
Step 6 A by negation.

Of this six-step proof, Paul claims that it "is valid so you can't pick on the form, only the premises." Of course, one can assemble a valid argument for anything, even to prove arbitrary ideas. So this is not much of an achievement. For instance, consider the following:

(1) If paper can be made from wood pulp, then the moon is made of green cheese.
(2) Paper can be made from wood pulp.
(3) Therefore the moon is made of green cheese.

Following a simple modus ponens format, this argument is formally valid. But are the premises true? While the argument is formally valid, its first premise commits the informal fallacy known as non sequitur: it does not follow from the fact that paper can be made from wood pulp that the moon is made of green cheese. Formal validity is only the first hurdle one must overcome on his way to soundness.

Now, Paul's TAG does attempt to deal with the issues that Bahnsen described as belonging to a transcendental argument's chief concern, namely identifying "what view of man, mind, truth, language, and the world is necessarily presupposed by our conception of knowledge and our methods of pursuing it." So at least Paul's TAG appears to have transcendental relevance.

The problem with Paul's TAG, however, is deeper than a mere non sequitur (though this could be argued in the case of the argument Paul has presented). The problem is that its intended conclusion has no reference to reality. And while presuppositionalists are likely prone to snap at this observation by accusing me of begging the question (one wonders if they know how to say anything else sometimes), TAG's overwhelming susceptibility to parody is more than sufficient to reject it.

Below I have recast Paul's TAG to show that it fails four tests for arbitrariness, namely the Geusha Test, the Loopto Test, the V-ger Test, and the Tlacuelotlatl Test. A theistic argument fails either one of these tests when it establishes a conclusion that contradicts the conclusion of the argument as it was originally worded. If TAG fails any one of these tests, then TAG must be rejected.

First the Geusha Test:

Step 1 Prove A: Geusha exists.
Step 2 Assume ¬A: Geusha does not exist.
Step 3 If ¬A, then B: there are no laws of logic, uniformity of nature, and moral absolutes.
Step 4 ¬B: There are laws of logic, nature is uniform, and there are moral absolutes.
Step 5 ¬¬A by Modus Tollens.
Step 6 A by negation.

"This is valid so you can't pick on the form, only the premises."

Look at that! Paul's TAG clearly fails the Geusha Test, for the Geusha Test reveals that one can reach a conclusion that contradicts TAG's by using the very same course of reasoning that TAG employs. So to answer Bahnsen, we have the following:

"For the Geusha believer, the transcendental answer is supplied at the very first step of man's reasoning - not by autonomous philosophical speculation, but by transcendent revelation from Geusha."

Now the Loopto Test:

Step 1 Prove A: Loopto exists.
Step 2 Assume ¬A: Loopto does not exist.
Step 3 If ¬A, then B: there are no laws of logic, uniformity of nature, and moral absolutes.
Step 4 ¬B: There are laws of logic, nature is uniform, and there are moral absolutes.
Step 5 ¬¬A by Modus Tollens.
Step 6 A by negation.

"This is valid so you can't pick on the form, only the premises."

Here we have another failure, this time with the Loopto Test. It reveals that one can reach a conclusion that contradicts TAG's by using the very same course of reasoning that TAG employs. So to answer Bahnsen, we have the following:

"For Loopto believer, the transcendental answer is supplied at the very first step of man's reasoning - not by autonomous philosophical speculation, but by transcendent revelation from Loopto."

Here we have the famous V-ger Test:

Step 1 Prove A: V-ger exists.
Step 2 Assume ¬A: V-ger does not exist.
Step 3 If ¬A, then B: there are no laws of logic, uniformity of nature, and moral absolutes.
Step 4 ¬B: There are laws of logic, nature is uniform, and there are moral absolutes.
Step 5 ¬¬A by Modus Tollens.
Step 6 A by negation.

"This is valid so you can't pick on the form, only the premises."

Again we have failure. For the V-ger Test reveals that one can reach a conclusion that contradicts TAG's by using the very same course of reasoning that TAG employs. So to answer Bahnsen, we have the following:

"For the V-gerist, the transcendental answer is supplied at the very first step of man's reasoning - not by autonomous philosophical speculation, but by transcendent revelation from V-ger."

And finally the formidable Tlacuelotlatl Test:

Step 1 Prove A: Tlacuelotlatl exists.
Step 2 Assume ¬A: Tlacuelotlatl does not exist.
Step 3 If ¬A, then B: there are no laws of logic, uniformity of nature, and moral absolutes.
Step 4 ¬B: There are laws of logic, nature is uniform, and there are moral absolutes.
Step 5 ¬¬A by Modus Tollens.
Step 6 A by negation.

"This is valid so you can't pick on the form, only the premises."

Paul's TAG also fails the Tlacuelotlatl Test. It reveals that one can reach a conclusion that contradicts TAG's by using the very same course of reasoning that TAG employs. So to answer Bahnsen, we have the following:

"For the Tlacuelotlatlist, the transcendental answer is supplied at the very first step of man's reasoning - not by autonomous philosophical speculation, but by transcendent revelation from Tlacuelotlatl."

Although this may seem repetitive, I wanted to make sure that I wasn't slighting Pau's TAG in any way. But the results of the tests are clear: Paul's TAG is just too vulnerable to parody to be worthy of any further serious consideration. So long as any of these tests establish a conclusion that rivals TAG's by TAG's own course of reasoning, TAG fails. And that's precisely what happened when TAG was put to these tests. QED.

It seems Paul's TAG just got goosed!

by Dawson Bethrick

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Do I Borrow My Morality from the Christian Worldview?

A common tactic in the presuppositionalist's quiver of attacks is to assert that non-Christians (particularly atheists) "borrow" from the Christian worldview. Apologist Greg Bahnsen makes the assertion that

the non-Christian makes use of ‘intellectual capital’, which is ‘stolen’ from the Christian worldview. That is, the unbeliever secretly rests his case upon Christian presuppositions, even while outwardly denying that he holds to them (and sometimes even putting up a show of opposition to them). (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 297n.83.)

For those who have ever engaged more than one presuppositionalist apologist, such accusations are to be expected. Though it can be applied in a variety of contexts, the charge of "borrowing" from Christianity is the presuppositionalist’s most common (and perhaps only) response to those who confront him with the problem of evil. The reasoning driving this charge seems to be that any time a person says some chosen action is wrong, he can only do so by assuming standards that only Christianity can provide and defend. In fact, Bahnsen tells us that he is "encouraged" when he sees "unbelievers getting very indignant with some evil action as a matter of principle." Why? Because "such indignation requires recourse to the absolute, unchanging, and good character of God in order to make philosophical sense." (Always Ready, p. 170.)

And apologists dutifully take their cue from Bahnsen on such matters. For instance, if someone says that murder is wrong, the presuppositionalist will say this is an indication that the ten commandments are being assumed as a standard. But this reasoning implies that the ten commandments say that murder is wrong. But that's not at all what the bible says. It just says "don't do it." It nowhere evaluates the action being prohibited, it just prohibits it. Apologists might want to argue that the prohibition is sufficient to infer that the action being prohibited is wrong, but this is demonstrably not the case. To say something is wrong, one needs to present a reason why it's wrong, a supporting context which explains why it is wrong. But in the case of divine commandments, we don't find this supporting context. Instead, they're backed up with threats: if you disobey the bible's commandments, you'll be damned. This in turn glosses over the New Testament teaching that forgiveness is available just for the asking per 1 John 1:9, which states "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Such teaching as this simply gives the believer carte blanche to do whatever he wants, which only means that Christianity's stance on morality is a fa├žade masking a deep schizophrenia that pervades Christianity's orientation to man's welfare.

So already the Christian is off to a bad start if he wants to defend this charge against non-believers. Indeed, the claim that I "borrow" my moral premises from the teachings of Christianity is utterly baseless, for I do not accept the Christian worldview’s premise that I have an obligation to "deny myself" (cf. Lk. 9:23) or sacrifice myself (cf. Rom. 12:1) to anyone, either real (like other human beings) or imaginary (like someone’s god). Since these are staples of Christian morality, presuppositionalists imply that they don't even know their own doctrine when they accuse non-Christians of "borrowing" from their worldview.

But to be sure, there are many fundamental differences between my morality and the morality taught in the bible that need brief mentioning:

Metaphysically, my morality is based on my nature as a biological being. There’s nothing I can do to change my basic nature. By contrast, the Christian's morality is based on someone’s commandments. That is, my morality is premised squarely on the primacy of existence while Christianity's moral notions are based on a rejection of the metaphysical primacy of existence. In objective reality, wishing doesn't make it so, precisely because existence holds metaphysical primacy over consciousness. But in the theist's cartoon universe, wishing has the final say so on everything. Essentially, the Christian imagines that there exists a ruling consciousness whose wishes are his commands, and the believer thinks he has an obligation to obey those commands. But as I pointed out in Christianity vs. Objective Morality, "Commands are suitable for dogs and robots."

Epistemologically, my morality is based on reason, which is man’s only means of knowledge. Rationality is the commitment to reason as one's only means of knowledge and his only guide to action. A commitment to life therefore requires a commitment to reason, because man must act and he needs a code of values which guides his choices and action, i.e., he needs morality to live. Contrast this with the Christian’s morality, which is based on faith in revelations, i.e., on the hope that his god-belief claims are true, even though they contradict reality and the very basis of reason itself, which is the primacy of existence.

The nature and structure of my morality is determined by the application of the law of causality to my nature as a living organism, i.e., an entity which faces a fundamental alternative (life vs. death) and which must act in order to continue living. My moral principles, then, take the form of hypothetical imperatives which are based on the goal-oriented nature of human action: For instance, if X is my goal, course of action Y is what I should do if I choose to achieve X. In application: If I choose to live, I must take those actions that make my life possible. If I want to satisfy my hunger (something I need to do if I choose to live), then I must eat. If I do not have food, I must take those actions necessary to procure it. Etc.

Contrast this with the Christian’s morality, which is determined by the application of unargued commands to the believer’s nature as a being created for the sake of serving its creator, while that creator has no needs and the believer does (yet he is commanded to "deny himself"). This is not a formula for identifying and making possible life-based values.

The fundamental antithesis should be clear: my morality is a morality of values (i.e., those things that make life possible and worth living), while the Christian's morality is a morality of duties (i.e., arbitrarily decreed prescriptions and proscriptions which have no grounding reference to reality or man's nature).

My morality teaches me how I can live for my own sake, that my life is an end in itself, and that I can enjoy my life without guilt, without relying on the sacrifice of others, and without sacrificing it to others. By contrast, the Christian’s morality teaches him to "deny himself" (cf. Mk. 8:34, Mt. 16:24, Lk. 9:23) and to hope for personal gain at someone else’s sacrifice (namely Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross) while treating his life as a means to someone else's ends (while that someone else has no needs).

Additionally, my worldview teaches that love must be earned, since reality cannot be cheated and genuine values do not find their basis in dishonesty. In my worldview, love is profoundly selfish since it is one's commitment to his own chosen values, and this is only possible if someone makes the choice to be honest about reality and do away with foolish pretenses. I cannot say I love my neighbor, for instance, if I know he cheats on his wife and beats his children, because I don't love such individuals and I won't deny this by repeating empty platitudes that I know are not true.

Contrast this with what Christianity teaches. It teaches that love is subject to commands, and this is essential to Christian morality. For, according to the author of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus allegedly made this the cornerstone of Jesus’ moral teaching:
Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Mt. 22:36-40)
I am mature enough to know that love is not subject to commands. Imagine what the world would be like if one could command another person’s love just by making a demand. Of course, those who cannot earn the love they want from others may easily be seduced by a worldview that teaches that others can be commanded to love them. But they can't. Whatever it is they think they have for others when they call it 'love', it is not love. The Christian notion that love can be commanded seeks to bypass the fact that the love of others must be earned, and thus constitutes yet another instance of Christianity’s lust for the unearned. So much for Christianity's claim to be a worldview based on love!

So who is borrowing from whom? It should be clear now that I am in no way borrowing from the Christian worldview. Rather, to the extent that Christians act for the sake of their own benefit, they are not denying themselves as Jesus commanded, and are acting on the basis of a worldview that affirms that values must be earned by reasoned action. Thus it's clear that they are borrowing from my worldview to the extent that they live.

by Dawson Bethrick

Monday, April 04, 2005

Omnipotence and Sovereignty in the Cartoon Universe

Christians love to say their god is "sovereign." Bahnsen, for instance, writes of "God’s all-controlling sovereignty" (Van Til’s Apologetic: Reading & Analysis, p. 122n.106). And by this they generally mean that whatever their god wants, their god gets. I.e., its say-so is sufficient to bring about any outcome it desires, for its say-so is final and ultimately authoritative, and omnipotence is the power which makes this happen.

Enter now the Cartoon Universe of Theism. The theist is truly caught between a rock and a hard place here. If he affirms that his god can do in the universe what a cartoonist can do in his cartoons, then he confirms the appropriateness of the cartoon universe analogy and thus should not try to resist it. But if he denies that his god can do the things that a cartoonist can do in his cartoons, then he’s essentially saying that the cartoonist can do things that his god cannot do. But of course this would violate the principle of divine sovereignty.

Many Christians of course will still resent it when non-believers point out that the theistic view of the universe essentially amounts to the view that it is nothing more than a cartoon. So here are some questions readers might ask themselves to determine whether or not they really do ascribe to the cartoon universe premise of theism. Any "yes" answer to one of these questions affirms endorsement of the cartoon universe premise; a "no" answer affirms either that one is an atheist, or, if he thinks he is a theist, that he thinks his god is impotent.

- Can your god create something ex nihilo (i.e., without using materials that already exist)?

- Can your god create a water-breathing man?

- Can your god create green snow?

- Can your god create red grass?

- Can your god create flowers that speak Mandarin Chinese?

- Can your god create a human being with 42 arms?

- Can your god create a woman who gives birth to elephants?

- Can your god create a teacup that dances with a spoon?

- Can your god create a second moon to orbit the earth?

- Can your god remove all salinity from the world's oceans?

- Can your god create a biological organism which requires no nutrients or oxygen to live?

And so on...

Notice that these questions are not like the age-old "Can God create a square circle," for even a cartoonist would be stumped by such a challenge. But a cartoonist can do all these things in the context of a cartoon. He can make things suddenly pop into existence, or create a man who breathes underwater, or make green snow or red grass, etc. He can do all these things. Christians who claim that their deity is "omnipotent" will likely want to affirm that it can do all these things if it wants to. This puts their god on a par with the cartoonist, and its creations on a par with the cartoonist's cartoons. Those who urge us to believe these things essentially urge us to believe that the universe is like a cartoon: conforming completely to someone's wishes and designs. If a person truly believes these bizarre notions, why would he resent being identified as an adherent to the cartoon universe premise?

In the final analysis, it all boils down to this: Either you believe the universe is like a cartoon in the hands of a master illustrator (theism), or you don’t (atheism).

I don’t believe the universe is like a cartoon, so that makes me an atheist.

by Dawson Bethrick

Sunday, April 03, 2005

The "God's Good Pleasure" Principle and the Cartoon Universe Premise

The more I examine the nature of Christianity and the statements of those who seek to defend it, the more appropriate and fitting I find the cartoon universe analogy that wrote about in my March 30 blog. When a cartoon illustrator draws his scenes, he is in a sense playing the part of a god: he determines which characters will be cast in his cartoon; he determines what they say and what they do; he determines the setting in which they interact; he determines all outcomes that will transpire in the story he paints. He can make gravity reverse itself, he can make water turn into ice instantly, he can make human beings fly through the air like birds or even soar like jet airplanes, or make them breathe water, sustain injuries which would kill a real human being instantly, only to get up and continue on as if nothing happened. He can do whatever he pleases. Anything that constrains him is external to the cartoon itself, such as his ability as an illustrator, his need for sleep, his lack of time or materials, his contract with his employer, etc.

In regard to its implications as an analogue to the theistic view of the universe, this aspect of the cartoon universe premise of theism raises a topical question: Is the supreme being that Christians praise and worship constrained, as man is, by any facts over which it has no control? Or, is this supreme being free to pursue whatever whim might catch his fancy?

Psalm 115:3 answers this question:

"But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased."

The notion that a consciousness which allegedly has no physical body can experience pleasure, is certainly bizarre. But it appears that the author of this verse, and those who believe it, take it for granted that such a notion is somehow sensible, and are willing to ignore the nature of pleasure as we know it in order to affirm such strange ideas.

Regardless, an analysis of the metaphysics behind the Christian god's capacity for pleasure while having no body was not what the author of this verse was trying to provide. In fact, I would find it rather dubious to suppose its author were even capable of such an analysis. Rather, the author’s point was that there is an invisible magic being whose will holds metaphysical primacy over everything else, and that its pleasure is its one and only guide to action. That is, according to this view, reality is subject to the Christian god’s whim.

Christians often protest this obvious recognition, insisting that their god is neither arbitrary nor capricious, that its choices and actions are "rational." (I kid you not, many have in fact claimed this.) But given their descriptions of their god, such a position is untenable. For one’s choices and actions to be evaluated as rational in nature, they would have to be made on the basis of objective facts which define an actor’s goals. Rational action is at minimum action that is goal-oriented, whose goal is objective in nature (i.e., based on relevant facts). The Christian god, however, if it existed, would lack any such objective reference point (everything other than itself was allegedly created by it to begin with), and it could have no goals whatsoever (since goal-orientedness presupposes personal needs which the supposed being that Christians describe could not have - it is said to be perfect and lacking nothing already). Thus when the apologist makes the claim that his god is “rational,” he commits the fallacy of the stolen concept – i.e., making use of a concept while denying its genetic roots.

Notice how the Christian worldview and the statements of its defenders imply the cartoon universe premise. Take the words of Greg Bahnsen for instance. On pages 225-226 of his book Always Ready, he writes the following:

According to Scripture’s account, God is the transcendent and almighty Creator of heaven and earth. Everything owes its very existence and character to His creative power and definition (Gen. 1; Neh. 9:6; Col. 1:16-17). He makes things the way they are and determines that they function as they do. “His understanding is infinite” (Ps. 147:5). Moreover, God sovereignly governs every event that transpires, determining what, when, where, and how anything takes place – from the movement of the planets to the decrees of kings to the very hairs on our heads (Eph. 1:11). According to the Bible, He is omnipotent and in total control of the universe. Isaiah 40 celebrates in famous phraseology the creation, delineating, direction, providence, and power of Jehovah (vv. 12, 22-28). He has the freedom and control over the created order that the potter has over the clay (Rom. 9:21). As the Psalmist affirms, “Our God is in the heavens; He has done whatsoever He pleased” (Ps. 115:3).”

As if tailor-made as a proof-text validating my cartoon universe analogy, Bahnsen cites Romans 9:21, which reads:

Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?

Had the author of Romans lived today, he would surely have been more accurate to his worldview if he incorporated the cartoonist and hsi work into his metaphor, for a potter is far too limited to serve as a fitting analogue for the Christian’s god. A potter, for instance, cannot make a pot that talks; but a cartoonist can make anything talk, such as talking rabbits (e.g., Bugs Bunny), talking ducks (e.g., Donald and Daffy), even talking cars (e.g., Speed Racer). Surely the author of Romans thought his god could make such things as the talking snake in the Garden of Eden and Balaam’s talking ass. After all, in Always Ready, pp. 109-110, Bahnsen asks in regard to his god, “He could even make the stones cry out, couldn’t He?” Apparently Bahnsen would have to think that his god could make stones cry out, for the book of Habakkuk is affirmed as “Scripture,” and in reporting God’s own pronouncements, Habakkuk 2:11 states: “For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beam out of the timber shall answer it.” A potter could not make ceramic vessels which sing; but a cartoonist can.

Similarly, a potter could not make a pot with superhuman strength; but a cartoonist can make anything with superhuman strength. A potter could not make a pot that can fly through the air on a broomstick; but a cartoonist can make anything fly on a broomstick. A potter could not make a pot that walks through walls; but a cartoonist could make the potter and all his siblings walk through walls. A potter could not make a pot that walks on water; but a cartoonist make anything walk or even dance on water. A potter could not make a pot that dies by means of crucifixion and three days later is resurrected; but a cartoonist make anything die from crucifixion and raise it up in a sequel.

So the paragraph quoted from Bahnsen’s book above, should really look like this:

According to the law of identity, the Cartoonist and his art are the perfect real-life analogue to Christianity’s notion of its god and the relationship Christians say it has to the universe. Everything in a cartoon owes its very shape and color to the Cartoonist’s creative power and definition. The Cartoonist makes the images in his cartoons the way they are and determines the actions that they perform. Moreover, the Cartoonist sovereignly governs every event that transpires in his cartoons, determining what, when, where, and how anything takes place – from the movement of a pink panther to the decrees of a sarcastic rabbit to the very hairs on Porky Pig’s chin. According to the law of causality, the Cartoonist is omnipotent and in total control of his cartoons. Disney’s Animator’s Yearbook celebrates in famous phraseology the creativity, delineating, direction, providence and power of the Cartoonist. He has the freedom and control over his cartoons that the potter has over the clay. As a pop singer might put it, “The Cartoonist is in the driver’s seat; He has done whatsoever He pleased.”

So contrary to what those sympathetic to Christianity might feel in reaction to my discovery, the cartoon universe analogy is far from an instance of gratuitous ridicule. In fact, it exquisitely captures the essence of what theism generally teaches in a simple analogy that exposes the hideous absurdity of theistic ideas.

by Dawson Bethrick

Friday, April 01, 2005

Paul's Empty Sling

Amateur Christian apologist Paul Manata has done me a big favor! He has advertised my blog – Incinerating Presuppositionalism – on his own blog – Pressing the Antithesis! And though he seems to have difficulty creating hyperlinks in his compositions, his free advertising is very well appreciated, just as mine is, too, I’m sure. I am grateful for this, because I'd love for all his Christian friends to come visit my blog and pay their kind respects.

Thank you, Paul!

Now, let's see what Paul wrote. Apparently, he didn't like what I wrote. But then again, he did not say this explicitly. In regard to my recent piece titled The Cartoon Universe of Theism, Christian apologist Paul Manata writes:

“The point of his article is that Christianity is like a cartoon.”

That’s not quite accurate. The point of my article is to show how the Christian view of the universe is analogous to a cartoon in the hands of its illustrator. If the universe is subject to the will of Paul's god, then my point must be true, for it simply points out that this notion is analogous to a cartoon and its relationship to the person who conceives and draws it.

Paul then writes: “We have a God who draws the universe, in a sense, just like a cartoonist draws his cartoons.”

Very good, Paul.

Next Paul writes: “He says God controls our thoughts like a cartoonist controls the thoughts of his cartoons.”

This statement does not represent the point I make in my piece for the following reasons:

First of all, I nowhere affirm the view that “God controls our thoughts”; if anyone affirms this, it would be someone who believes there is a god in the first place. That is certainly not something I think is true. Already Paul is missing a crucial distinction: he holds to the cartoon universe premise, while I do not.

Second, Paul's formulation of my point suggests that I attribute the power of thought to cartoons. I do not; I nowhere affirm that cartoons have thoughts.

Third, I nowhere incorporated the view that “God controls our thoughts” in framing the analogy that I identify. Paul seems to have misunderstood the following statements in my piece:

the theist imagines a supernatural illustrator who wishes the universe into existence and controls it just as ably as it controls its own thoughts. The contents of the universe conform to the thoughts of the divine consciousness just as the scenes of a cartoon conform to the imagination of the illustrator.

Notice the first statement here; it does not say anything about the "supernatural illustrator" controlling "our thoughts." But of course, some Christians do in fact believe that their god does indeed do this. But not all Christians seem to be in agreement on this matter. Some Christians hold that men can choose their own thoughts, or at least that their own uncoerced volition plays a role in their thinking. But to be sure, the object that is said to be under the control of the supernatural illustrator, is the universe itself. And herein is where the analogy with the cartoonist manifests itself: Just as the cartoonist controls what happens in his cartoons, Paul thinks his god controls what happens in the universe. Paul does think, does he not, that his god ordained the earthquake and tsunami of December 26, 2004?

After quoting a paragraph from my brief essay, Paul asked: “But does Bethrick seriously think he has a point?”

Yes, I certainly do. Why would I post it on my blog if I didn’t? And if Paul didn't think I was serious, why would he choose to respond to it?

Paul then asked: “I mean, are there not objective hermeneutical principles we can use when we interpret any literature?”

The issue is not hermeneutics, because this would at best be a secondary concern. The primary concern is whether one accepts what the bible says as truth, or not. Paul is on record affirming Christianity as if it were really true. Thus, he essentially ascribes to the cartoon universe premise. He cannot blame me for this, for this is not my doing; I did not choose for Paul Manata to affirm the cartoonist's conception of the universe as truth.

Paul then interjects: “I mean, I must assume that when he watches the evening news and the weatherman says that sunset is at 5:45 p.m. Bethrick really thinks the sun is going to set!”

It’s not clear how this statement is at all relevant to the matter at hand (whether or not I accept what the weatherman says about the sunset has nothing to do with the strength of the analogy I have identified), let alone how it is implied in anything he said up to this point. It appears to be an attempt to divert attention away from his confessed affiliation with religious notions.

Paul then writes:

Or, take his buddy Francoi's statement that we are ‘immoral dogs’. I guess Bethrick has no way to determine if I am a human or a dog! If he says that it is literal, ‘his case is pathological’. If he says that it is obviously figurative exaggeration, then ask him if the stories of one-celled organisms turning into thinking humans is also to be taken as exaggeration.

Again, it’s not at all clear what point Paul is trying to make here, or how it is in any way relevant to my piece. It certainly does nothing to dispel the analogy I have identified, but I suppose it’s clear enough that my piece has struck a raw nerve. Again, how I take Francois’ (note the spelling here, Paul) pronouncements, whether literal or figurative, has no bearing on the matter. It’s also not clear what Paul has in mind when he mentions “the stories of one-celled organisms turning into thinking humans.” Perhaps he means the development of a fertilized human ovum into an adult human being. It's not clear why anyone would deny this reality. Apparently Paul has difficulty really engaging the issue at hand.

Paul suggests the following: “Ask him if he thinks that a non-rational universe giving rise to the ration is an exaggeration.”

Some editing here is probably needed, for by “ration” I am supposing he means “rational.” Paul seems to be writing in haste. That’s fine, so I’ll address the question.

I don’t know what Paul means by “a non-rational universe.” The universe exists. This much is agreed. As I understand it, the concept ‘rational’ and its negations could only apply to a certain class of entities, namely those which possess a faculty of consciousness capable of forming concepts. For instance, we do not say that rocks are either rational or irrational, for rocks do not possess a consciousness capable of forming concepts. The concept 'rationality' applies specifically to judgments and decisions. But rocks don’t make judgments and decisions. Rationality presupposes consciousness, but rocks are not conscious. And I certainly do not think that the universe as a whole is a conscious entity, so I would not say that it makes judgments and decisions, whether rational or otherwise. So it seems to me that Paul is simply committing the fallacy of the stolen concept here.

At any rate, it’s unclear what relevance Paul’s suggested question has on the current matter. Perhaps he thinks that the cartoon universe premise of his theism is preferable to the actual state of affairs, because he finds the latter depressing. But of course, that is not how truth is discovered and validated. How Paul Manata feels is not a means of validating any truth claim.

Paul suggests his readers ask me another question: “Ask him if he thinks that saying that the cell-dividing turned into the copulating is an exaggeration.”

It’s not clear what this would prove. It certainly would not weaken the analogy I have identified. And again, I don’t know what he means by “cell-dividing turned into the copulating.” Is he denying that cells multiply? Is he denying that some biological organisms copulate? If he has a point to make, he’s guarding it very close to his chest, when it would be nice to see him share it with his readers.

And then he suggests yet another question for his readers to ask me:

Ask him about one-way lungs turning into two way lungs, non-sonar animals turning into the sonar-gifted, unthinking turning into the thinking, non-verbal to the verbal, and the first human being lucky enough to find a female who evolved in the same life time, and area, in order to be able to continue our race, is an exaggeration.

Again, I don’t know what point Paul is trying to make here. What’s clear is that he has not presented any argument which challenges the analogy I have identified. Indeed, I don't think he can.

Paul then stated: “So, though frogs turning into princes is not a comic book it is certainly a fairy tale.”

Wait a minute! If Paul believes that the universe was zapped into existence by means of a conscious act, that there was a talking snake, that a burning bush spoke, that a man was born of a virgin, that a man walked on unfrozen water, that he turned water into wine just by wishing it, that disease was cured simply by wishing it, that a man was revived back to life after being dead for three days, why would he think that the idea of a frog turning into a prince “is certainly a fairy tale”? How did Paul come to this conclusion, given his allegiance to the cartoon universe premise? Apparently he just picks and chooses what he wants to believe, or someone else has done this for him.

Paul closes with the following statement: “If Bethrick complains that this is a misrepresentation (or misunderstanding) of his position, well, et tu.”

To be sure, there was some misrepresentation in Paul’s post, which I pointed out above. But most if not all of it was irrelevant to the point I made in my post. Indeed, the notion that the universe conforms to the desires of Paul’s god, is directly analogous to the events in a cartoon conforming to the intentions of the cartoonist. If Paul is a Christian, he holds the cartoon universe premise, and yet apparently resents it when others point this out.

To settle the matter, perhaps Paul could answer a simple question:

Can your god make rocks sing?

Yes or no, Paul?

Another question he might not want to answer, given the rambling he presents in response to my brief essay, is:

Was Jesus’ resurrection literal, or was it metaphorical?

Which is it, Paul?

At any rate, we should all be adult enough to draw the right conclusions from his answers to such questions. I know I am. That is why I do not ascribe to the cartoon universe of theism.

by Dawson Bethrick

Thus Saith the Lord and His Spokesmen: "Shut Down Thy Mind!"

I have a co-worker who is Christian. Although she’s not stated this to me, I have the impression that she’s been a Christian virtually all of her life. Generally she is sweet and kind, and for the most part she sticks to herself. She certainly doesn’t try to proselytize at the workplace, but on occasion her god talk comes out in casual conversation. Those few instances have confirmed to me that she’s deep into the Christian scene, that her Christian worship is an integral part of her life.

Not long ago there was an incident involving this woman which served to illustrate a striking contrast with the Christian apologists I tend to encounter on the internet. A day or two after the earthquake and tsunami in the Andaman Sea back in December 2004, she and I had somehow gotten into a conversation about earthquake prediction. I mentioned to her that seismologists were making great strides in understanding and even predicting seismic activity through their study of plate tectonics and geologic stresses. It was clear that she had never studied geology nor heard about plate tectonics before. Educationally, she seems not to have progressed beyond the high school level, even though she now has three teenage children to take care of. But she does seem up on her gospel music.

What was striking about our conversation was how her attitude sharply changed when I mentioned the work of scientists. She seemed almost offended when I mentioned that people actually study these natural phenomena in the effort to understand them better.

"Oh no! You can’t know the mind of God!" she emphasized repeatedly.

I gently tried to clarify to her that these scientists were not trying to discover anything about her god. Rather, they were trying to understand how the earth’s plates work.

"No!" she protested. " We can't do that! No one can figure out God! He’s got a plan, and that’s all there is to it. We can't figure it out!"

She was adamant about this. It seemed that the very fact that some men strive to come to a scientific understanding of plate tectonics and the tensions which lead to the kind of calamities that the world witnessed on Dec. 26, 2004, offended her in some way. And the things she said could only be taken to mean that she thought those scientists were engaged in a futile pursuit, that no natural cause could be found for the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates, that no understanding of the nature of earthquakes could come as a result of such investigations.

This woman, kindly and amicable as she generally is, is clearly operating on the level of a primitive brute. She is of the same mentality that believes lightning from sky indicates angry and mischievous deities, throwing thunderbolts down from their perches high atop big black clouds that hover above the earth.

And though it must be a miserable experience for her, the point is that this person gets it: She’s the real thing when it comes to the ideal Christian believer. With her, the indoctrination is complete: she draws a sharp line of no return when it comes to matters of knowledge and science. In other words, she senses quite precisely just where Christianity takes over and stops all knowledge in its tracks. She dutifully shuts down her mind when it comes to areas of study which inspire normal persons to wonder.

This is not to say that this kind of mental self-immolation does not express itself in more tutored Christians. On the contrary, it’s evident in them as well. Take for instance the attitude expressed by Jay Adams in his reaction to John Frame's comments on Adams' book The Grand Demonstration (Santa Barbara, Calif.: EastGate Publishers, 1991), which is Adams' response to the problem of evil. On page 152 of his own book Apologetics to the Glory of God, John Frame expresses dissatisfaction with Adams' proposed solution, which basically consists of pointing to Romans 9:17 ("For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: 'I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth'"), complaining that Adams comes across as too "cocksure" of his proposed solution. Frame was generous enough to include Adams' brief reaction to Frame's criticism in the appendix to Apologetics to the Glory of God, and in that reaction Adams makes the following statement (pp. 246-247):

Of course, Frame can play the child's game of asking why, if he wishes. You know how that goes, don't you? The child asks his mommy why in response to every answer she gives. If Frame does not think that the answer revealed in Romans 9 is sufficient, he can go on asking why. "Why did God want to demonstrate his nature?" is the next in line, I suppose. But God has not revealed that to us… Yet, Got has told us why evil men exist. And that should be enough.

Adams' position couldn't be more clear: Accept what you read in the bible as God's final say so, don't question beyond this point, for here you must shut your mind down. Thus saith the Lord and His spokesmen.

Also, it seems that Adams' belittlement of the manner of inquiry he cites (referring to asking a thinker to go down the chain of causality to get at some root assumption as a "child's game"), is inappropriate, coming from a Christian apologist. For one, apologists routinely use this as a debating tactic in their skirmishes with non-believers. Presuppositionalists, for instance, heavily favor the tactic of demanding their non-believing interlocutors to "account for" virtually everything under the sun, if not the sun itself, as if non-believers styled themselves as the omniscient know-it-alls, a position already occupied by the apologists themselves. Once a non-believer provides the explanation that the apologist has requested, the apologist then demands that he "accounts for" some element in that explanation, and so on. This of course keeps the attention focused away from the nonsense that the apologist says he's defending.

But another point, internal to Christianity, is missed by Adams' ridicule for incessant inquiry. Aren't Christians supposed to condescend themselves to the level of children? Matthew 18:3 clearly stipulates such self-lowering as part and parcel of the salvation experience: "And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." So given the bible's own recommendation, it seems Frame would be wrong to cease his childish antics, even if it annoys fellow believers like Jay Adams. But then again understanding this would require one to know why putting two and two together makes four, and that's not possible for someone who has shut down his mind.

by Dawson Bethrick