Thursday, December 27, 2007

My Chat with a Presuppositionalist

One day while on a short flight to Denver, a presuppositionalist apologist was seated next to me. He didn’t waste time and started right in with his robotic apologetic babbling. Our conversation went as follows:

Presuppositionalist: “God, as absolute personality, is the ultimate category of interpretation for man in every aspect of his being.” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 52)

Non-believer: Are you simply trying to state your beliefs, or do you have a proof of your god’s existence?

Presuppositionalist: “There is the evidence of the created order itself testifying to the wisdom. power, plan, and glory of God.” (Greg Bahnsen, The Great Debate, opening statement)

Non-believer: Are you saying that you infer your god’s existence from things that you perceive, or are you saying that you perceive your god directly? It sounds like you’re saying you infer its existence rather than have direct awareness of it.

Presuppositionalist: “God is not found at the end of an argument; He is found in our hearts.” (Van Til, Why I Believe in God)

Non-believer: So, you don’t have an argument for your god’s existence. Instead, you look inwardly, consulting the subjective realm of your feelings and emotions?

Presuppositionalist: "The argument for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity is objectively valid. We should not tone down this argument to the probability level. The argument may be poorly stated, and may never be adequately stated. But in itself the argument is absolutely sound. Christianity is the only reasonable position to hold." (Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, p. 62)

Non-believer: So you do have an argument? If you infer your god’s existence, from what do you infer it, and what is the course of reasoning by which you arrive at the conclusion that your god exists? Or, if you perceive it directly, by what means do you perceive it? And if you do perceive your god directly, why would you need any argument for its existence?

Presuppositionalist: "The theistic proofs therefore reduce to one proof, the proof which argues that unless this God, the God of the Bible, the ultimate being, the Creator, the controller of the universe, be presupposed as the foundation of human experience, this experience operates in a void. This one proof is absolutely convincing." (Common Grace and the Gospel, p. 192, emphasis original)

Non-believer: I don't find this convincing at all, let alone "absolutely convincing." And something is still not clear to me. I asked if you infer your god's existence. But here you say you presuppose it. One could say this about any arbitrary belief. So if you claim to have an argument for your god’s existence, you’re tacitly admitting that you do not perceive its existence directly (for we do not argue for that which we perceive directly). So, what’s your argument?

Presuppositionalist: “The proof of Christianity is the impossibility of the contrary. That is, the validation of the Christian worldview is that without it you cannot prove anything.” (Greg Bahnsen, Pushing the Antithesis, p. 148)

Non-believer: That is not an argument, it’s simply a naked assertion. Similarly, the Lahu tribesman can say “Geusha exists because of the impossibility of the contrary,” and I can say “All gods (including yours) are fictitious because of the impossibility of the contrary.” So you still need an argument.

Presuppositionalist: “The atheistic worldview cannot account for the laws of logic/absolutes, and must borrow from the Christian worldview in order to rationally argue.” (Matt Slick, The Christian Worldview, the Atheist Worldview, and Logic)

Non-believer: This too is not an argument. Even if it is true that a particular non-believer “cannot account for the intelligibility of human experience,” etc., this would not prove that no atheist individual or atheist philosophy can do so, or that a god exists or that Christianity is true. All it would prove is that the individual in question is ignorant on these things. Since we’re born ignorant, and the issues being inquired on are very complex and rife with controversy even among those who have devoted their entire academic lives to them, a particular individual’s ignorance in some area of philosophy is wholly understandable. Most people are too busy living their lives to delve into philosophy in the manner that the presuppositional method demands of them. So, do you have anything more than mere assertions?

Presuppositionalist: “It is impossible and useless to seek to defend Christianity as an historical religion by a discussion of facts only.” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 7)

Non-believer: I realize that. Since the basis of your religion is not factual, you have no choice but to retreat into the imaginary. Only you refuse to acknowledge that it is imaginary. But you offer nothing other than one’s imagination as the means by which one can “know” its so-called “truths.” For instance, I can imagine Jesus rising from the dead in the confines of his stone sepulcher, but doing so does not establish what I imagine as actual historical fact. There is a difference between fact and imagination, and your religion trades on blurring this distinction.

Presuppositionalist: “To engage in philosophical discussion does not mean that we begin without Scripture. We do not first defend theism philosophically by an appeal to reason and experience in order, after that, to turn to Scripture for our knowledge and defense of Christianity. We get our theism as well as our Christianity from the Bible.” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 8)

Non-believer: I realize this also. Your imagination of your god is inspired by the content of a storybook. The anecdotes, speeches and episodes that we read about in the bible supply inputs which the believer substitutes for actual facts, and quickened by the imagination they take on what seems to be a larger-than-life quality. The same process happens when we allow ourselves to be absorbed in a Harry Potter novel. We imagine the characters of the story and the events that the story has them go through, and in our imagination they take on their own life. The biblical realm, like the realm of Harry Potter, is a creation of the human mind invested in the imaginative elaborations inspired by what is given in the text.

Presuppositionalist: “If Christian theism is not true then nothing is true.” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 208)

Non-believer: Okay, let’s try this. I have a simple challenge for you. You say your god is real, that it truly exists. Can you explain how I can reliably distinguish between what you call “God” and what you may merely be imagining?

At this point the presuppositionalist turned forward and stared directly ahead. His eyes were wide and bleak, and his mouth pursed shut. Completely mute, he looked like a gambler who was realizing that he had just lost his life’s fortune.

The man didn’t say anything for the rest of the flight, even when the flight attendant asked if he wanted anything. He just sat there in silence, staring off into space, as if pretending no one else existed.

When we finally landed and were preparing to disembark, I said to him, “Thanks for the chat. I hope you enjoy your stay in Denver.” He just nodded slightly and turned his back on me. I guess he couldn’t answer my challenge.

by Dawson Bethrick

Monday, November 26, 2007

D. James Kennedy's Impotent Jesus

In his sermon "The Sin of Unbelief (Part 2)," Christian apologist D. James Kennedy speaks out against "unbelief" and "unbelievers." In developing his point, he makes use of the example of Doubting Thomas, a character in the gospel narrative found only in the book of John. Kennedy finds this example useful because, according to the story, Thomas did not readily accept the testimony of his fellow disciples that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead. Thomas wanted to see firsthand evidence that Jesus was really resurrected. Says Kennedy, Thomas "is like many who say, 'unless I can see it, hear it, touch it, I will not believe." According to Kennedy, this requirement for evidence is an attitude of "sin." So accordingly, Thomas was sinning by asking for evidence to support the claim that Jesus had been resurrected; the believer is supposed to “believe,” not “know.” Kennedy's assessment is corroborated to a marked degree by the words which the author of the gospel of John puts into Jesus' mouth: "blessed are those who haven't seen and yet believe." It's hard to see this as anything other than a praising endorsement of sheer gullibility, of suspending the requirements of knowledge for the sake of believing a storybook tale.

Then Kennedy makes a most remarkable assertion. He states:

Now Christ cannot appear personally to all of the billions and billions of people that have lived on the earth since that time, but we have the testimony of many of those that have seen him at that time....

If I were a Christian, I would find this statement most puzzling. Why can't Christ "appear personally to all of the billions and billions of people that have lived on earth" since the 1st century? Christ is the second person in the trinity, a member of the "Godhead," and thus is omnipotent, omnipresent and illimitable by the constraints of this world. If Christ could appear to Saul of Tarsus on his way to Damascus, why can't he appear to other people, regardless of how many that might be? After all, all human beings who have ever walked the earth were supposedly created by this supernatural being called Christ. In fact, they claim that Christ created the earth to begin with. So why in supernaturalia would Kennedy think his Christ "cannot appear personally to all of the billions of people that have lived on the earth"? Kennedy most likely thinks all those billions will appear before Christ one day, does he not? So here we have a reversal of sorts: the god is unable to appear to man, while man is able to appear before the god.

At any rate, Kennedy does not explain why he thinks "Christ cannot appear personally to all of the billions of people that have lived on earth since that time." He simply slips this premise into his sermon hoping no one seizes upon it for examination. This is how the mystics try to get away with their egregious landgrabs, and watch the sea of chins in his audience nodding in uncritical agreement.

Now we should now ask how well this comports with other things that Kennedy himself has affirmed before his audiences. Consider what he states in his brief sermon entitled "I Can't Believe That!" He says:

If one can't believe in miracles, it is quite obvious that one can't believe in God. The disbelief in the miraculous is simply a statement of atheism. So, when a person says to you, "I can't swallow this business about Jonah being swallowed by a whale," you could simply say to him, "Oh, you're an atheist." That will shock the person. "Uhwha uh not ra really." "Oh, yes, you're atheist. You obviously can't believe in a miracle, and if you can't believe in a miracle, that is ipso facto atheism. If God cannot prepare such a fish, He obviously never created the world. If He didn't create the world, He is obviously not God.

When Kennedy tells his audience that "Christ cannot appear personally to all of the billions of people that have lived on earth" since the 1st century, he's essentially saying that he "can't swallow this business about" Jesus being able to perform a miracle that the bible itself portrays Jesus performing in the book of Acts. We’re supposed to believe that Jesus appeared before Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, but when the opportunity comes for the same Jesus to appear before any of us today, Jesus is suddenly stricken with supernatural impotence. Indeed, such impotence would have to be supernatural, for natural impotence would not be powerful enough to constrain Jesus.

So does Kennedy truly believe in miracles? Or is belief in the miraculous subject to the flip of a light switch, able to be turned on and off given the expedience of the moment? If I were a Christian, it would trouble me to think that Jesus could not appear before all human beings as he allegedly did before Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus as described in Acts 9 and 22. But then again, I never was good at simply believing and suspending my desire to know. And they tell me that my worldview "borrows" from Christianity? They obviously don't know what they're talking about (but many do want to believe this).

Personally, I have no problem denying miracles, since miracles are an expression of the primacy of consciousness metaphysics. So I can be consistent where Kennedy has to shape-shift before his own audiences. It would be better for people like the late D. James Kennedy to have taken a vow of silence on such matters.

by Dawson Bethrick

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Lord Oda's "Problem with Pain"

In his thoughtful comment to my blog Singhing the Greg Bahnsen Blues, Lord Oda attempted to tackle one of the points that I raised against Greg Bahnsen’s futile efforts to untangle “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’,” namely my point that Bahnsen nowhere explains how we can distinguish between what the believer calls “the supernatural” and what he may merely be imagining.

Now Lord Oda did not attempt to neutralize my challenge by pointing out where Bahnsen addresses it (Bahnsen certainly does not address it in his book Always Ready, where he should have), nor does Lord Oda attempt to answer it on his own behalf by explaining how we can distinguish between the god he claims to worship and what he may merely be imagining. No, that was not Lord Oda’s chosen route here. Instead, he sought to turn the tables on me by intimating that pain, which we know is real, cannot be distinguished from one’s imagination any more than a god can. Although at first blush this might seem to be a promising counter-approach, but upon closer examination we will find some fundamental oversights in such a maneuver. Broadly speaking, it does indicate that my challenge is very well placed.

Lord Oda began by quoting from my blog Singhing the Greg Bahnsen Blues:

But this simply raises the question: what objective inputs from reality suggest this?

In response to this, Lord Oda wrote:

"No man knows another's pain." This Scriptural view is contrary to the psychological expression of empathy.

I’m curious to find where the bible supplies this view. Lord Oda provides no indication, but scriptural references would help to secure the claim that it is in fact “Scriptural” if there were any which affirm it. But it would be a rather odd statement for the bible to affirm. It would mean that, on the one hand, one cannot know the pain of someone standing right next to you, but on the other he can know what exists beyond the universe (since the same textual source insists that men accept the claim that supernatural beings exist as truth), even though he has no way of determining, for instance, how many moons are orbiting a planet orbiting a nearby star. It is interesting how mystics seem to pick and choose what men can and cannot accept as knowledge.

Also, if it's the "Scriptural view" that "no man knows another's pain," then how can the Christian believer know how much pain that Jesus supposedly experienced on the cross? I've heard many believers - ministers, in fact - preach that no ordinary man has ever had to endure the kind of pain that Jesus experienced on the cross, that it was the worst pain ever suffered by any man in all history (presumably even more than other men who were executed in the same fashion). I don't know how one would be able to know this, but I have heard this claimed on many occasions.

Lord Oda continues:

So which is true? A man's pain is a subjective reality. He may know it as objective, but only in himself. He may even express it objectively to another. But, the other cannot know that pain which is subjectively experienced by the one expressing it.

For one thing, I don't think there's a such thing as "a subjective reality." There aren't multiple realities. The idea of 'objective reality' is a redundancy, albeit sometimes a necessary one, particularly because some thinkers apparently assume that there are in fact multiple realities.

Also, a man's experience of pain is real, and it is part of reality. No doubt Lord Oda agrees with this. He should, as it is essential to his case. But where Lord Oda and I differ at this point is on the matter as to whether pain is subjective or objective. In my view, pain is not subjective at all. Not even close. On the contrary, pain is objective in the sense that anything else in reality is objective: it exists independent of one's knowledge, understanding, wishes, desires, ignorance, denials, pretenses, imagination, preferences, etc. One may not know why he has pain, but he has it anyway; he may not understand what caused the pain, but he suffers it regardless. He may wish that the pain go away, or desire it to subside, but his pain does not conform to his wishes and desires. He may try to deny the pain, or pretend that it isn’t really there, but it’s there all the same in spite of his denials and pretenses. He may imagine that it isn’t there, or prefer that it’s really nothing, but the pain persists uninhibited by these feats of conscious activity. If pain were subjective, this would mean that the subject of consciousness holds metaphysical primacy over pain, and consequently one could, for instance, wish pain away (wouldn't that be nice?). But that's not the case at all. So pain is in fact not “a subjective reality,” but an objective part of reality that man has to learn to cope with, for it does not obey any subject’s intentions. That is because pain has a biological cause, just as pleasure does. It can be scientifically tested, understood and repeated. It can even be treated, such as with chemicals which inhibit pain receptors in the brain. A trip to the dentist would be far more unpleasant without the novocaine that he injects into your gums.

Now it is true that another man cannot feel the pain that I am feeling. But it does not follow from this fact that pain is subjective or that it is not objective. There are factual reasons why one individual does not experience another's sensations. A man is an indivisible unit. He possesses the faculty of consciousness, and he possesses only his own faculty of consciousness. His senses and nerves are connected to his own brain, not to someone else's brain. So we should not expect one man to experience another man's pain.

Lord Oda continues:

So, how do you establish that you are not just imaginining that you have pain?

Here Lord Oda wants to place the burden of proving a negative on the shoulders of someone who reports to be in pain. (Suppose the author of Matthew, for instance, penciled in a witness to Jesus' crucifixion who asked, when the pinned up savior reports "I thirst," asks: "How do you establish that you are not just imagining that you thirst?") This is markedly different from the challenge that I have put before Christian believers. My challenge to them is to explain how one can distinguish between what the believer calls "God" and what the believer may merely be imagining. This challenge is philosophically relevant because "God" is supposed to be an actually existing entity independent of human nature rather than a figment of one's imagination. Lord Oda's response to this challenge is not to provide such an explanation, but to point to a phenomenon which nobody questions but which allegedly poses an analogous problem. Unfortunately, this doesn't work in favor of Christian theism, for man's pain is not an entity distinct from man, nor is it independent of man's nature. Below Lord Oda will deny that there is any difference here, but in fact there is a fundamental difference that he has clearly ignored.

So how does one know that he is experiencing pain? He knows that he is experiencing pain by means of his direct, firsthand experience of it. He may not have even identified it as 'pain' (he may be an infant who hasn't learned this concept yet), but he still experiences it. His experience of the pain gives him the objective inputs which serve as the initial units of the concept 'pain' once he does form it. Those inputs are just as objective, due to their causal nature, as any other sensory inputs in his experience.

But Lord Oda's question seems to be: How does one establish that he is not just imagining the pain he experiences to others? Interestingly, I've never had difficulty convincing my dentist that I was experiencing pain during a procedure. However, there are some reasonable questions we can ask to probe this apparent difficulty in the event of any doubt. For instance, are the others to whom one is attempting to establish the reality of his experience of pain human beings? Do they know what pain is? Do they understand that certain actions, such as those which damage the body in some way, can cause pain? Do they acknowledge that damage to the body which would result in pain has in fact taken place? Are they being honest? Etc. If the individuals to whom the hurting person is called to "establish" his experience of pain understand, at least basically, the causal nature of pain (and anyone who avoids an activity which has caused him pain in the past does), then all one needs to do is show that the causal conditions for the pain he reports have been fulfilled. For instance, if he's got a two-inch bleeding gash on his arm, he could point to it as the cause of the pain he is experiencing. He could also point to his own facial grimaces and squeals of distress as corroborating evidence. And although these can be faked, that would not necessarily indicate that the person is actually imagining that he is experiencing pain (he might want others to imagine it).

It is, in fact, quite difficult to constrain evidences of pain, especially if they are external. Try bringing a sledge hammer down on your pinky at high velocity and see if you can keep from blurting a yelp or a few expletive as it happens. But even if there is no apparent wound, a painful leg is hard to walk on, and a limp can be very difficult to conceal. Of course, if the pain is extreme, it could result in the victim falling unconscious or even worse.

Lord Oda gives his answer to his own question:

There are no external inputs to objectively establish your subjective experience.

In the case of pain, there very well may be external inputs (see above for examples), and in fact there often are. Quite frequently, testimony is not the only indicator of pain. There's the gash on your arm indicating damage that could only result in pain. An X-ray can show the break in a bone, and an MRI can show a tear in the right meniscus. It would be quite unusual for these causes not to result in pain. Even veterinarians can discern, by reference to objective inputs, when an animal is in pain. And yet, Lord Oda wants the person suffering from such injuries to prove that he's not imagining the pain. This demand is quite telling, coming from a Christian, for it demonstrates how he grants such power to the imagination.

Lord Oda continues:

The observations of another can only establish that he is observing what appears to be the experience of pain, but since pain can be faked, visual observation can not establish the existence of pain let alone the experience of it.

In other words, Lord Oda takes the possibility of faking pain (or more accurately, the faking of corroborating symptoms of pain, such as facial grimacing and yelps of distress) at face value, but he's not willing to take the actual experience of pain at face value. Does Lord Oda not think it's possible that one can in fact experience pain? Or, does he suppose that it's more likely that people will fake having pain when they report to be in pain than actually experience it? Perhaps Lord Oda has children who like to play hookie from school, and he has yet to learn how to discern when one of his little one's is legitimately ailing or just pretending so that she can get out of class for the day.

Lord Oda tries to exacerbate the problem:

Now, you may want to argue that with modern technology, pain centers can produce measures that when associated with self-reports, substantiate that pain is occuring. Yet with that, there may not be any physiological cause.

It's true - modern technology does shed light where pre-scientific cultures are left in the dark. (Such was the case in the Christian Dark Ages.) But for purposes of Lord Oda's question, this would be superfluous. A gash in the arm, or a fresh burn mark on one's finger, would be sufficient evidence of one's experience of pain. There is no reasonable doubt about the credibility of such evidence of pain.

Now it may be case that in a particular instance there is no known cause of the pain one reports to be suffering. Philosophically speaking, however, this is not problematic, certainly not in the way that Lord Oda might want to construe it for apologetic purposes. We already know that the capacity to experience pain is an objective part of human life, given our biology. And although the cause may not be known initially, it often can be discovered; as Lord Oda himself indicates, modern technology - such as ultrasound, X-Ray, MRI, etc. - can overcome many limitations in unaided perceptions.

Also, and importantly, the recognition that pain is possible is wholly consistent with the primacy of existence metaphysics. This cannot be said on behalf of god-belief.

Lord Oda then tries to complicate the matter in order to weigh the burden even further:

Another problem of course is in the objective measures of quantity and quality, for which, there is yet no means to establish a baseline for the experience, individually, which can be used acrossed populations. In the end the experience of pain is just your imagination by any external measure.

Here Lord Oda has shifted the matter from merely identifying objective inputs for one's experience of pain, to developing a method of measuring "quantity and quality" (did he mean intensity?) of one's experience of pain. This is an altogether different matter, and ceases to bolster his objection for it's not germane to the issue that he has tried to raise against my challenge to theists.

Lord Oda shows that he's anxious to ratchet up the onus when he states:

Your example of a drip simply involves you in the infinite regress.

What infinite regress does Lord Oda have in mind? This is not clear from anything he says.

Lord Oda shows a tendency to allow his anxiety to confuse him:

You state the processes that can be observed without discovering the source of those processes. You simply presuppose their existence, eternally, unsuccessfully avoiding the tautological, recursive, said so is so, redundancy.

Let's review what I wrote in my example of the drop of water:

But consider: when a drop of water falls from the leaf of a plant in the early morning dew, why suppose that some conscious activity makes this happen? Sure, one can imagine that a magic being is causing this. But this simply raises the question: what objective inputs from reality suggest this? The lack of objective inputs does not stop a thinker from imagining that a magic consciousness resides "behind" everything in the universe. But that's one of the major points which Bahnsen continually fails to confront: since there is a fundamental distinction between what is real and what is imaginary, those who assert a god need to explain how a thinker can distinguish between what the believer calls "God" and what the believer may simply be imagining.

So what is Lord Oda talking about when he says "simply presuppose their existence, eternally, unsuccessfully avoiding the tautological, recursive, said so is so, redundancy"? It appears that Lord Oda is attempting to manufacture some non-problem. If he had a legitimate objection to raise against my position, he wouldn't have to do this. What's clear is that he does not answer the question I have posed in my blog.

Lord Oda then suggests:

You might likewise presuppose that because you experience pain, that there must be an objective measure of its experience.

I did not "presuppose" that "there must be an objective measure of its experience," and I don't see how Lord Oda gathers that I "might" have done so from what I have written, or how it bears on the discussion. But I am certainly open to the possibility that a method of measuring pain can be developed (assuming one hasn't already been).

Lord Oda muses some more:

You might even presuppose, that since technology advances, what was unable to be observed, since it can be experienced, that some day there may be a means to objectify it.

No, I didn't "presuppose" this either.

Then Lord Oda issues his personal ruling on the matter:

There is no such thing, and never will be.

Three cheers for Christian optimism... Isn't it odd, though, how Christians assert the existence of invisible magic beings, magic kingdoms, magic torture chambers and the such, and expect us to accept such claims as truth, but then turn around and say things like this.

Lord Oda drifts around another turn:

The only true measure of pain is always, and ever will be, relative to the subjective experience of it. So, how do you know that pain exists, as opposed to your just imagining it does?

Now Lord Oda has brought the issue back to how I as the one who feels the pain can "know that pain exists, as opposed to... just imagining it does," where earlier the issue was presumably how I can establish my experience of pain to others. But the answer here is quite simple: I know by experiencing pain directly and identifying by means of an objective process (cf. the objective theory of concepts). Also, while experiencing the pain, I can imagine that I'm not feeling the pain, and if the pain persists, this would indicate that the pain is not resulting from my imagining it.

Lord Oda asked a question:

Or, how do you know what you know of pain?

By relying on an objective means of knowledge (namely reason).

Lord Oda asked another question:

Or, what is the basis of your epistimology of it?

The primacy of existence.

Then Lord Oda asked yet another question:

Similarly, how can an observer know what you know?

Similarly, by relying on an objective means of knowledge (again, called reason).

Lord Oda attempted to preempt certain avenues of response by anticipation:

Like pain, he can only experience the knowledge of what you say you know.

Actually he can do more than this, if he really disputes my pain. He can reproduce in himself what caused the pain in me. E.g., if my pain resulted from burning my finger on a hot stove, my disputer can do the same and experience the same thing: pain. If he really didn't think my burnt finger hurt before, he would be quite foolish to dispute it now. Of course, if his scepticism about the pain in my burnt finger took him so far as to need to burn his own finger as well to confirm that a burnt finger is in fact painful, I'd say he's already pretty foolish. But I am a patient man, and would be willing to help him learn without destroying himself.

Lord Oda states:

He cannot experience your knowing it.

And he can also experience his own pain as well.

Lord Oda asks:

So, how does an objective observer establish that you are truly knowing what you say you do.

See above.

Lord Oda states:

You may be able to argue that you do.

Yes, I may do this, if I wanted to.

Lord Oda again:

You may be exact in your expression of any given data.

If need be, yes.

Lord Oda asks:

You say you exist, another may observe that you exist, but how do you establlish for the observer that you know you exist[?]

Just by using concepts which refer to myself (as I am doing in this very sentence), I establish beyond all reasonable doubt that I know I exist. Knowing that I exist is a fundamental precondition to using concepts which refer to myself as an existent.

Oddly, Lord Oda states:

The observer cannot know with certainty that which he cannot see, namely your experience.

If it's the case that "the observer cannot know with certainty that which he cannot see," then why do Christians affirm with certainty that their god is real, when they themselves admit that no one can see it?

Lord Oda opines:

Empathy is a false reality. We say, "I feel your pain." The reality is that "No man knows another's pain."

While I don't think there is such a thing as "a false reality," I can certainly understand the concern that Lord Oda wants to express here. One's conscious experiences are private. The pain I feel is pain that I feel. And only I feel my own pain. But again, this does not make pain "subjective." Pain is very much a real and objective phenomenon, it has a causal nature, and our knowledge of it is objective.

Lord Oda continues:

Now, you would not deny that anyone but yourself can experience pain simply because you cannot know their experience of it.

Of course I wouldn't. Pain has a causal nature, and our capacity for pain is an inherent attribute of our nature as biological organisms.

Lord Oda rushes to judgment:

You've experienced pain, so you presuppose that others do, also.

Correction: I have experienced pain, and I have learned that others experience pain also. I did not "presuppose" this. I discovered it. There is a vast difference here.

Lord Oda asks what he probably thinks is the clincher:

What is the difference between your presupposition of the existence of the experience of pain, (your presupposition of eternal existence), and another's presupposition of the existence of God?

There are many points that can be raised here to underscore the vast differences between the two. For one thing, as I have pointed out, pain is an objective phenomenon and has a biological cause. It can be studied scientifically, it can be treated medically, it can be reproduced, too. Our capacity to experience pain is inherent in our biological nature, and is physical. Also, we can know that it is not dependent on imagination, because when experiencing pain we cannot make the pain go away by imagining that it will stop. If pain obeyed imagination, we wouldn't need over-the-counter painkillers, nor would we be so careful to avoid injuring ourselves because of the pain that can result.

If I break my leg, for instance, it's going to hurt no matter what I imagine. Anyone who disputes the fact that a broken leg is painful can break his own leg and settle the matter. And anyone who claims that he cannot distinguish between my experience of pain and my alleged faking it or imagining it, can break his own leg and settle the matter. Most likely the disputer won't do this, because he knows that it will result in terrible pain. His decision not to pursue the recommended course of action to settle the matter (e.g., breaking his own leg) indicates that he really doesn't dispute the fact that my broken leg is painful.

The notion of a god, however, couldn't be more different. Unlike pain, which one feels directly and is an inherent part of our nature as biological organisms, a god is supposed to be an entity distinct from the universe and everything within it, including human beings. Pain is an aspect of our experience which comes and goes depending on certain conditions, while a god is supposed to be an eternally existing and unchanging consciousness separate from man and existing independent of man's conscious activity. As such, a god would be a consciousness distinct from man's own consciousness, not an aspect of his experience that undergoes what man undergoes. Since "God" is supposed to be a distinct entity separate from man, an objective process would be required to discover its existence and acquire any understanding of its nature. To dispute this is to concede that god-belief reduces to subjectivism.

Also, as has been pointed out, pain is independent of imagination, it can be reproduced, and its causality can be scientifically understood and medically treated. In contrast to this, theistic belief has no alternative but to rely on the believer's imagination to inform it. Even according to advocates of belief in a god, its existence cannot be discovered by a perceptually based cognitive process (e.g., by means of reason), and that it is not subject to scientific study, testing, evaluation, experimentation, etc.

But Lord Oda, without providing any rationale behind his opinion, disagrees with me. In answer to his own question above, he asserts:

There is none. You simply, out of blind predudice deny that God exists. Because of that, you deny that anyone can know Him.

I also deny that the Tooth Fairy exists. Does this condemn me of “blind [prejudice]”? I don’t think so. But in the minds of those who insist that the Tooth Fairy is real, it probably does. Likewise I deny that Valhalla is a real place. Does this also condemn me of “blind [prejudice]”? Those who wish that Valhalla were real probably think so.

I simply don’t believe there is a god, and accusations such as the one that Lord Oda recites here are not going to change this. Accusations are not going to intimidate me. People claim to have knowledge from another reality, and under scrutiny such claims fall apart at their very roots (since they assume the primacy of consciousness). Does not believing that Geusha exists constitute “blind [prejudice]”? I don’t think so. What Lord Oda calls “blind [prejudice]” is actually my honesty and the integrity of my rational judgment, both of which Christianity would have me sacrifice on the altar of pretended piety and submission. Believers will of course resent me for my unwillingness to sacrifice my honesty and rationality, so they accuse me of “blind [prejudice].” Since they cannot defend their position rationally, they have no alternative in continuing the discussion but to attack my character. Have they stopped to consider that they themselves are guided by a “blind [prejudice]” against reality? After all, someone who insists that a fiction is true is very likely going to accuse those who do not accept his fiction as truth of some nefarious bias of one sort or another. Christian apologist Phil Fernandes himself admitted how prone believers are to fabrication when he stated (in his debate with Jeff Lowder):

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.

One certainly does not need to prove that the non-existent does not exist. One can simply and honestly just point it out. What’s clear is that nothing in Lord Oda’s comments reasonably establishes what he claims here. It is not a conclusion which follows from anything he has hitherto presented. Moreover, I have already answered the charge (unargued in your case) that my atheism is borne on “blind [prejudice]” by exploring how one of Christianity’s “finest” apologists (according to Christians themselves) attempts to explain how he can “know the ‘super-natural’.” (See here.) If Lord Oda agrees that there is a fundamental distinction between what is real and what one may merely be imagining (and maybe he doesn’t), then he should also agree that it would be of fundamental importance to provide a means of distinguishing between the claim that a god exists and what one may merely be imagining (as I have done in the case of one’s experience of pain).

Lord Oda then asks:

But, how is it, that you cannot know another's pain and establish that they can know it?

That's simple: consciousness is one of my worldview's axioms. Consciousness is an inherent attribute of man, and the capacity to experience pain is universal to mammals (of which man is a species). Why would I dispute someone's claim to be in pain, for instance, if I saw that he had a fresh laceration on his arm? I know enough to realize that had I the same laceration on my arm, I would be in a lot of pain.

But if that same person said that the gash was caused by Zeus throwing thunderbolts from the clouds, why would I suppose he is not either imagining or simply pulling my leg? Even Lord Oda should see that there is an astounding difference here, and yet he exclaims that "there is none."

Lord Oda drones on:

They cannot show you their subjective experience, they can display it, you might even be able to demonstrate scientifically that pain is materially happening, but you cannot demonstrate by any means a value of experience.

It seems contradictory to say, on the one hand, “they cannot show you their subjective experience,” and, on the other, to then also say “they can display it.” Also, if one "might be able to demonstrate scientifically that pain is materially happening," as Lord Oda concedes, then there's no problem on my side. Science deals with reality by means of an objective process.

Lord Oda strains his loins even further:

Conversely, though you use all your means to demonstrate that you do not know that God exists and therefore cannot know that God exists, you cannot demonstrate that another does not.

I hope Lord Oda does not propose this as a serious defense of his god-belief. But maybe he does. (Again, I do not assume that reality conforms to my hopes.) For one, I have never argued that one "cannot know that God exists" if this is to mean one “cannot know whether a god exists.” I am an atheist, not an agnostic. Furthermore, since I argue that god-belief is irrational, it would be inconsistent for me not to suppose that someone who claims to know that a god does in fact exist is either irrational or dishonest. Philosophically, as I have shown time and time again in my writings, god-belief assumes the primacy of consciousness. But this view is self-contradictory and invalidates any claim which assumes it or reduces to it. Charitably, I can say, then, with full confidence, that anyone who claims to "know God" has misidentified whatever it is he is calling "God." Typically what has happened is that the believer has confused his imagination with reality. Lord Oda's response to my challenge shows that he has no answer to my challenge for believers to explain how we can distinguish between what they call "God" and what they may merely be imagining. I don’t think his is an isolated case.

Lord Oda goes on:

The problem with pain is that it can only be truly known by the individual experiencing it.

And all individuals can experience it. And I’ve not met one who has not experienced pain.

But Lord Oda invests this fact with theological significance:

The problem with knowing God is likewise. Unless one experiences God, he cannot know. This is faith.

Of course, anyone believing in any invisible magic being can use this defense. The Muslim can just as easily say that he has experienced Islam’s Allah. The Lahu tribesman can likewise say that he has experienced his deity Geusha. The Wiccan says she has experienced the God and Goddess of Wicca. Etc. Lord Oda’s preferred approach supplies no safeguards against contradiction or ad hoc, arbitrary claims which simply have no bearing whatsoever to reality. He figures that, if one can experience pain, then he can experience invisible conscious entities which exist independent of himself. But this is a most dubious non sequitur if there ever were one.

Lord Oda makes an appeal to the storybook defense:

Jesus put it this way, "You study the Scripture because in them you think you know God. But, they are that which speak of Me."

If one "knows" the Christian god through reading or studying the bible, then my point stands unscathed. Similarly, one can "know" Harry Potter by reading a Harry Potter book. The narratives found in the gospel stories, for example, supply inputs for one's imagination to enlarge on. These are not the same thing as objective inputs indicating the truth of what one reads in those stories. To miss this is to miss the distinction between fact and fiction. But this is endemic to religious experience, so I expect believers to resist this in some way.

Lord Oda admits:

Just like pain, apart from experiencing it, God cannot be known through objective means, alone.

It is good that Lord Oda admits that his god "cannot be known through objective means." Tacking "alone" at the end of this confession does not alleviate its subjective implications. However contrary to Lord Oda's insinuation, this is not at all like pain. Pain is not an independently existing entity. But "God" is supposed to be an independently existing entity. This is a fundamental distinction which Lord Oda fails to integrate into his case.

by Dawson Bethrick

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Lord Oda on Faith

Attentive readers will recall my response to the commenter “Singh” where the commenter assumes that I “despise Christians.” On numerous occasions I’ve had to correct this common misperception. For if there were no Christians, my blog would probably lose some of its entertainment value. Indeed, at Incinerating Presuppositionalism, Christians provide the entertainment, for they are the entertainment.

Recent comments by a visitor to my blog, who posts under the moniker Lordodamanor, are no exception. This fellow kindly dropped by to offer his comments, and they are well worth exploring. Also, although I think his moniker is quite creative, I decided to shorten it for the purposes of my interaction with his comments.

Now, in my essay Faith as Belief Without Understanding, I had written:

One is that the bible is painfully ambiguous in its use of the word 'faith'.
Lord Oda lifted this one statement from my essay and offered the following response to it:

Thanks for proving that you've never read, or have never understood Scripture. Unequivocably Jesus states, "You will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free."

And I thank Lord Oda for proving that he has to ignore everything else I said beyond what he had quoted in order to conclude that I have “never read, or have never understood Scripture.” Believers love to accuse not only non-believers of failing to “understand Scripture,” but other believers as well. This naturally implies that he accuser believes he understands it in order to make such statements about others. Unfortunately, however, because of overuse, it loses credibility quite quickly.

But I will say that knowing the truth has in fact set me free. Learning just how false Christianity is has indeed set me free from the psychological sanctions and cognitive disabilities which this horrific worldview uses to decapitate man’s spirit.
Lord Oda continues:

You quoted Hebrews 11.1, but inacurately expound it. "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Estin de pistiv elpizomenwn upostasiv, pragmatwn elegxov ou blepomenwn. To unpack this: Pistis is derived from a root that means immovable, the foundation, the rock, the essential, basis, elemental, base knowledge. Hupostasis means that which is the substance, again, elemental. Elpizo, is the thing expected. To put this back together, faith is faith is faith, or knowing is knowing is knowing, or faith is the essence of hope. Or, faith is the possession of the thing hoped for.

Here Lord Oda clearly thinks that “faith” has to do with “knowing,” for his summary of his interpretation of the Greek text of Hebrews 11:1 equates “faith is faith is faith” with “knowing is knowing is knowing.” But the definition given in Hebrews, even Lord Oda’s parsing of the original Greek, does not support this interpretation. Immovable foundations (let alone rocks!) do not necessarily mean “knowledge” or “knowing”; nor does “substance” or “the thing expected.” It says nothing about “knowing” or “knowledge” (and even less about conceptualization). Christians are habit-prone to casually assuming this is the case (as common parlance clearly indicates this), but even the several models of faith that the rest of Hebrews 11 holds up as examples of faith are not examples of “knowing”; on the contrary, most are examples of acts of will.

For example, look at Hebrews 11:4:

By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain

Making an offering is an example of an act of will. It states nothing about “knowing” something or acquiring “knowledge.”

Look at Hebrews 11:7:

By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house

Again, we have another example of an act of will. “By faith Noah... moved with fear, [and] prepared an ark...” This is an example of action, not “knowledge.” Moreover, fearing something is not the same thing as knowing something. Emotions are not knowledge, nor are they a means of validating knowledge claims.

Hebrews 11:8 is especially damning for Lord Oda’s association of faith with “knowing”:

By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.

Here we have as an example of faith an act of will (“By faith Abraham... obeyed...”), and it states explicitly that this act of will was performed without the benefit of knowledge (“not knowing whither he went”). In fact, the only instance of any form of the word “know” which occurs in all of Hebrews 11 (the so-called “faith” chapter) is specifically to indicate a lack of knowledge rather than a possession of it. If this example of faith is any indication, it is better defined as the willingness to act on an assumption even though you don’t know it’s true or simply don’t believe it.

The example of Abraham’s faith, which Hebrews upholds as a model for all believers to emulate, shows just how dangerous faith is. Hebrews 11:17 makes this crystal clear:

By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,

Here the author of Hebrews alludes to the story found in Genesis 22, where Abraham is ordered by his god to prepare his only son as a burnt offering, a sacrifice to a deity that wouldn’t need any offerings in the first place. With such stories the bible shows that when a person guides his life by faith (in this case, action without understanding), it poses a direct threat to one’s values. (See also my Notes on the Story of Abraham and Isaac in Gen. 22.)

Now none of what Lord Oda states here challenges what I had stated in my essay Faith as Belief Without Understanding.

Curiously, Lord Oda also said:
Analogously, water is H2O.
I guess I fail to see the analogy between faith and "water is H2O."

Now, if faith is best defined as "the possession of the thing hoped for,” as Lord Oda has indicated, why doesn’t the bible define it in this manner rather than in the manner that Hebrews 11:1 defines it? Blank out.

Lord Oda continues his parsing of the Greek in Hebrews 11:1:

Pragma, means fact, a proven thing done. Blepo, has a wide variety of meaning, but for this context it simply means to observe and coupled with Ou meaning not, ou blepo expresses the unseen.

Same problem here: “fact” does not mean “knowledge” or “knowing,” and neither does “the unseen.” Indeed, what Lord Oda gives us here simply shows us that whatever faith does mean, it slashes off one avenue of objective input by which knowledge of reality is gained by human beings, namely eyesight.

Now, it is clear that Hebrews associates faith with hoping, and Lord Oda goes so far as to suggest that “faith is the essence of hope” or “faith is the possession of the thing hoped for.” There is in fact an intimate correlation with hoping when someone affirms a religious position on faith (he affirms it actually because he hopes it is true). But that correlation, as we shall see, is not quite as Lord Oda would have it, nor does this correlation comport with Lord Oda’s association of faith with knowledge. It must be stressed that hoping is not the same thing as knowing. In fact, we have to know something before we can hope for anything, but when we hope for something, that is not the same thing as knowing it. As I pointed out in my essay,

Hoping for something does not produce assurance. I could hope for a million dollars, but there’s no assurance in this of receiving it. Needless to say, my hoping does not assure its own fulfillment.

Christian faith, then, is the hope that the gospel story is true, nothing more. It is the hope that Jesus was real, that Jesus really died for the sinner’s sins, that Jesus really rose in resurrection, that there really is an afterlife, and that the promise of living in paradise for eternity is really the reward for devotional worship, etc.

Of course, one can hope all he wants, but reality prevails; reality will not conform to one’s hopes. Pointing such facts out, however, simply makes atheists a bunch of spoilsports in the minds of those who would prefer to indulge these hopes. But in fact, it is better for man’s life and his need for values that he conform his hopes to reality as much as possible (e.g., I hope the business meeting I have this afternoon goes smoothly), rather than breaking from reality in preference for hopes which are simply untrue and have their basis in mystical fantasies (e.g., I hope an invisible magic being will guide my steps and vanquish all my enemies). With the latter he invites the cognitive hazard of confusing his fantasies with reality, and such misidentification of reality can easily lead to destruction. But perhaps destruction does not concern Christians; after all, they are taught to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (cf. Mt. 6:10), which of course - on most interpretations - would entail the wholesale destruction of the earth as it is now. And as I have already pointed out, the lesson of the story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis chapter 22 shows just how dangerous faith in invisible magic beings can be.

Also, Lord Oda’s interpretation of Hebrews 11:1 as suggesting that “faith is the possession of the thing hoped for,” seems difficult to harmonize with Paul’s understanding of the essence of hope, which he gives us in Romans 8:24-25, where he writes:

For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.

Now first off, it should be clear that this verse is entirely compatible with my interpretation of Christian faith as “the hope that the gospel story is true.” But is it consistent with the view that “faith is the possession of the thing hoped for”? It would not at all be unnatural, in light of what Paul writes here, to suppose that “hope that is possessed is not hope: for what a man possesseth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we possess not, then do we with patience wait for it.” This would be a natural reading because both Paul's version as given in Romans and the version I have proposed here reduce to the same common principle: we don't hope for what we already have in hand. Ironically, what Paul says of hoping, the same can be said of coveting. For one does not covet what he already possesses.

So Paul and the author of Hebrews – if Lord Oda’s interpretation of Hebrews 11:1 is correct – seem to be quite out of sync with each other. But this would not be a first by any means.

Lord Oda then states:

So, the bible is not "painfully ambiguous." It is exacting, expansive, extensive in its definition.

Unfortunately for Lord Oda, parsing Hebrews 11:1 is not sufficient to remove ambiguity from the bible’s use of the notion of faith. When I say that “the bible is painfully ambiguous in its use of the word ‘faith’,” I mean the bible as a whole. I am certainly not restricting my evaluation to merely one verse of one chapter of one book of the bible (e.g., Hebrews 11:1) as Lord Oda seems to think. And it’s true, various passages in the bible use the word ‘faith’ to indicate a wide assortment of things. So explaining how just one passage in the bible conceives of faith, does nothing to address the larger picture as I have indicated.

For instance, some bible verses treat faith as an act of will (e.g., the examples of faith given in Hebrews 11), while others as a kind of force endowing believers with some special power or ability. Examples of this would include the episode in Mt. 9 where a woman who “was diseased with an issue of blood twelve years” (vs. 20) was healed when she touched the hem of Jesus’ robe; the author of the gospel has Jesus say to her, “thy faith hath made thee whole” (v. 22; see also Mk. 5:34, 10:52, Lk. 8:48, et al.); elsewhere the ability to receive miraculous healing is affirmed as an expression or result of faith (e.g., Mt. 9:29, Acts 14:9); or the ability to cast mountains into the sea (cf. Mt. 17:20). Peter’s ability to walk on the sea with Jesus (cf. Mt. 14:28-30) is also suggested to be made possible because of faith, for when Peter grew frightened and began to sink as he was trying to walk on the sea, Matthew has Jesus rebuke Peter with the oft-repeated slogan “O thou of little faith,” indicating that had Peter more faith, he wouldn’t have been able to walk on the sea just as normally as Jesus did.

Other passages suggest that faith is a kind of epistemic faculty. For instance, in II Cor. 5:7 the apostle Paul famously notes that Christians “walk by faith, not by sight.” Let’s hope they stay off the streets if that's the case. This is how faith seems to be understood in much common parlance among Christians themselves in their daily walk as Christians. Very frequently I have myself heard Christians speak as if they “know” some truth on the basis of faith. Lord Oda’s own interpretation of Hebrews 11:1, where he suggests a semantic kinship between “faith is faith is faith” and “knowing is knowing is knowing” indicates that he may be this kind of Christian himself. Just how faith is supposed to work as an epistemic faculty is never explained, either in the bible itself (which tends not to explain much of any use of the word in the first place) or by Christians who employ the term in this manner. Faith is thus used as a kind of non-cognitive putty which shores up gaps of ignorance in order to underwrite one’s affirmations with an air of piety. Often the goal is to fetch a series of "Amen, brother!" exclamations from one's peers, thus signaling the verification of club membership. Agreement with other minds is often more valuable to the devoted believer than actually validating his verdicts.

Sometimes ‘faith’ seems to denote an entire belief system taken as a whole. For instance, we read in Romans 1:5 where the apostle Paul writes of “obedience to the faith”; and in Acts 6:7 where “a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.” In Acts 13, we read of a sorcerer who sought to turn a believer away “from the faith” (v. 8).

Interestingly, according to some gospel passages, faith is something that can be seen (cf. Mk. 2:5, Mt. 9:2).

And yet other passages use the word ‘faith’ to indicate the degree of commitment adherents might have to the devotional program of the religion (cf. II Cor. 1:24, I Thes. 3:5, James 1:3, Rev. 13:10).

Of course, there are times when ‘faith’ seems to equate ‘belief’ – especially belief that is approved and commanded to be accepted as true (apparently the command of an invisible magic being is supposed to serve to “justify” such beliefs). For instance, it is telling that some versions (e.g., the KJV) translates Mk. 6:6 to say “he marvelled because of their unbelief,” where others (e.g., the NIV) translate the same passage as saying “he was amazed at their lack of faith.” Similarly, in Jn. 20:27 (the only verse in the KJV version of this gospel to come back as a result in a search for the keyword ‘faith’), the evangelist has his Jesus console Thomas the doubter with the words “be not faithless, but believing.” Apparently on this view, faith as "believing" is subject to command.

What’s clear, however, is that Hebrews 11:1 is the only point in the whole bible where an author attempts to provide an explicit understanding of what faith is supposed to mean. Virtually all the other passages, while contextually indicating a wide variety of meanings, clearly assume that the reader “just knows” what is meant by the term in question. Many passages simply repeat faith-based slogans (e.g., “O thou of little faith”), and others similarly emphasize the supposition that there are various degrees of faith; faith can be great or weak, increased, etc. Such passages offer nothing in the interest of understanding just what faith is supposed to be, thus perpetuating the ambiguity I and many other active-minded critics have observed.

So in fact the meaning of the notion of faith is indeed shrouded in ambiguity throughout the bible, and this ambiguity is a result of varied usage in widely disparate contexts conveying different meanings which no single definition (e.g., the one found in Hebrews 11:1) can suit. In fact, the variety in meanings of ‘faith’ is a result of many authors working from different theological assumptions and backgrounds contributing works which were later stitched together as if they were all affirming the same “truths.”

Lord Oda also wrote:

Calvin in his Institutes takes an entire book, along with many references elsewhere to explore the meaning, not obliquely, but rather exegetically, with incurrence, understanding the critical nature of faith's percise definition and operational application.

I'm aware of the fact that various theologians throughout history can spend volumes slicing and dicing words and phrases ad nauseum as they contend for their desired outcome in the battle to see who can fit the most angels on the head of a pin. But that just underscores the problem here: If the bible were so “exacting” as Lord Oda asserts, why would Calvin need to devote a whole book to “explore the meaning” of faith? The volume that a theologian seems to need to get to the bottom of an issue only suggests that the issue in question is not quite as simplistic as popular defenders might like to make them out to be.

Personally, I see faith as a covering term for a most unsightly symptom which is inherent particularly to religious practice. That symptom is the believer’s devotion to the primacy of consciousness metaphysics as expressed in various religious talking points, such as mystical belief in the supernatural, prayer, affirmation of so-called “religious truths” like the resurrection, the afterlife, the existence of invisible magic beings and places like heaven and hell, etc. As a covering term, its function is to disguise the fact that such mystical beliefs and practices have their basis in hopes which make a sharp departure from reality and turn inward into one’s own imaginative fantasies. Passages such as Mk. 11:22 where Jesus commands his disciples to “have faith in God,” suggest that faith is a kind of make-believe switch that the believer can flip on when things get emotionally difficult. The word ‘faith’ thus acts as a kind of signal for the believer to disengage from reality and turn on his religiously-infiltrated imagination to effect the mood swing that is Jesus. Corporately, use of the word ‘faith’ is a signal for other believers nearby to retreat into the imaginary realm of religious devotion, for only in that realm will they see “the truth” of what is being spoken; for what religion considers "truth" is not of this world, not of this reality, but of a fantasy that has no basis in fact. Faith is thus the doorway to the cartoon universe of theism.

by Dawson Bethrick

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Singhing the Greg Bahnsen Blues

A court jester for Christianity recently created an anonymous moniker on Blogger so that he/she/it can masquerade in the comments sections of this and other blogs. This one goes by the name Singh. His/her/its Blogger profile is dated September 2007, and when I checked it there had been only 4 page views. So Singh must have just recently been born again, for it appears he/she/it just fell off the cabbage truck. Incidentally, Peter Pike just happens to have has an entry on his blog about a book by Simon Singh. Coincidence?

Anyway, Singh left comments today in response to two of my blog entries. Singh also made an appearance at Debunking Christianity earlier today as well. On my blog, Singh's drive-by comments can be found here and here.

Singh apparently didn’t like my series on Greg Bahnsen’s attempts to defend “knowledge of the ‘super-natural’.” Observe:

Singh: "Sure, you have answered Bahnsen."

I surely have.

Singh: "Whether you have answered correctly is another story."

In my final assessment, I identified 13 areas where Bahnsen's defense of "knowledge of the 'super-natural'" could at best be considered utterly deficient. Bahnsen's defenders are free to show where Bahnsen in fact addresses these concerns in the space of the 31st chapter of his book Always Ready. Failing to do this on these 13 points will only concede the matter to my analysis and the verdicts it supports.

Singh: "Your unargued presupposition that all existence, life, mind, and reason it itself is the the result of mindless processes is still hanging out their [sic] twisiting in the wind."

What is the alternative to what Singh has characterized as "mindless processes" if not some process which is guided by mental activity? And what alternative is there to the "presupposition that all existence, life, mind, and reason it [sic] itself is the result of mindless processes" if not the presupposition that "all existence" is "the result of" a mental process? Thus in so characterizing my "presupposition" (which is nothing other than the primacy of existence principle), Singh confirms Christianity's dependence on the primacy of consciousness metaphysics. Notice how Singh's own presupposition of the primacy of consciousness hangs itself: on his view, "all existence" is the "result" of some conscious activity - which can only mean: the conscious activity took place prior to "all existence" - which could only mean that the conscious activity could not exist. But in order to be responsible for "all existence," it would have to exist. Thus your Singh's presupposition necessarily entails self-contradiction. This isn't surprising coming from a Christian, for Christianity is a form of worshiping contradiction.

Now what is so wrong with supposing that a so-called "mindless process" is responsible for various activities in reality? Singh does not say, so perhaps there's nothing wrong with it. But consider: when a drop of water falls from the leaf of a plant in the early morning dew, why suppose that some conscious activity makes this happen? Sure, one can imagine that a magic being is causing this. But this simply raises the question: what objective inputs from reality suggest this? The lack of objective inputs does not stop a thinker from imagining that a magic consciousness resides "behind" everything in the universe. But that's one of the major points which Bahnsen continually fails to confront: since there is a fundamental distinction between what is real and what is imaginary, those who assert a god need to explain how a thinker can distinguish between what the believer calls "God" and what the believer may simply be imagining. I raise this question at numerous critical junctures throughout my interaction with Bahnsen's essay, but Singh nowhere acknowledges that this might even be a concern, let alone addresses it.

Singh: "Science has certainly not demonstrated your presuppositions of course, but your faith that it will is obviously great."

Singh succeeds only in broadcasting his/her/its own ignorance here. Science is only possible on the basis of a rational worldview guided by the principle of objectivity. The primacy of existence is the essence of the principle of objectivity. It is the recognition that the objects of consciousness hold metaphysical primacy over the subject of consciousness. The alternative to this view is any form of subjectivism that the human mind can invent (such as Christianity). In terms of essentials, the primacy of consciousness view of the world ultimately reduces to the view that wishing makes it so. Obviously science does not proceed on the basis that wishing makes it so; rather it proceeds on the basis that facts obtain regardless of what we wish and that the scientist's task is to discover and identify those facts, whatever they might turn out to be. Since science is not possible on any basis other than the primacy of existence principle (the recognition that existence exists independent of consciousness), there is no scientific burden to demonstrate the truth of the primacy of existence. It is in fact axiomatic - a base-level truth upon which all other truths depend. If the primacy of existence were not already true, science simply would not be possible. The fact that science not only is possible but is an amply developed field of human endeavor, is for the purposes of serving the point thus taken as sufficient confirmation of the primacy of existence. To deny this is to deny the principle of objectivity and surrender the mind to outright subjectivism.

Singh: "And I do use faith in the same perjorative [sic] sense that you do, in this context."

It is the bible, not I, which associates faith with hoping (see specifically Hebrews 11:1). And it is Greg Bahnsen himself, not I, who characterizes faith as belief without understanding. If Singh affirms things on faith, that's not my problem.

Singh: "Frankly, your self referential rehashes and baseless moral pronouncements are unconvincing."

It's not clear what Singh is referring to here. So saying whatever it is he has in mind is "unconvincing" is unhelpful to anyone other than himself.

Singh: "The great flaw in your whole continuing thread is your constant claims that Bahnsen does this...Bahnesen does that...without adequate (or, in many cases ANY) references to where EXACTLY he does this."

This is so false that it's apparent that Singh hasn't bothered to read any of my installments interacting with Bahnsen's essay. I give "references to where EXACTLY" Bahnsen does precisely what I cite him doing. What's more, I identify the book where does this, and I cite the page number. And I go even further to quote exactly what he says. Then I interact with it.

Whether he/she/it realizes it or not, Singh demonstrates that his/her/its commitment to Christian mysticism is emotional rather than intellectual in nature. Singh's concern is to discredit my criticism of Bahnsen without assembling any counter-criticism of his/her/its own or showing where in fact Bahnsen addresses the issues which I have raised. Apparently Singh sees that his/her/its champion apologist has been decisively exposed as a blathering fake, and frustrated by this he/she/it feels a need to retaliate. Why does it matter to Singh what I or any other critic of Bahnsen has to say? Did Singh really believe that such paltry comments are going to accomplish anything of value by emoting in this manner? T'is true, Christians do believe all kinds of foolish things, so perhaps this is the case.

Singh: "And knowing how much you despise Christians, from your remarks on other blogs, I am certainly not going to place any "faith" in your representing him correctly."

I nowhere ask that any of my readers "place any 'faith' in" anything I do, say or present in the first place. In fact, I have published arguments for my verdicts. But I don't see that Singh has interacted with any of them. Why, for instance, does Bahnsen seem so oblivious on the relationship between perception and conceptualization, as his own statements make clear? If Singh thinks I'm wrong in concluding that Bahnsen did not understand the relationship between perception and the conceptual level of cognition, where does he present his understanding on this, and why didn't he integrate it into his "defense" of his "knowledge of the 'super-natural'"?

As for the claim that I "despise Christians," this only shows that Singh is a very poor judge of character. Singh has mistaken his/her/its own umbrage with evidence of spite on my part. On the contrary, however, I love Christians. They make for great entertainment. Singh is a case in point.

by Dawson Bethrick

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Friday, September 21, 2007

Bahnsen on "Knowing the Supernatural" Part 18: Final Assessment and Conclusion

Continued from Part 17.

Final Assessment and Conclusion

Before Greg Bahnsen’s death, Christian apologist John Frame hailed him as “one of the sharpest apologists working today,” opining that “he is the best debater among Christian apologists of all apologetic persuasions.” (Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, p. 392) Elsewhere he says that Bahnsen was “singularly gifted for the spiritual warfare of our time” by the Christian god, and perhaps because of this divine endowment, “Bahnsen still has no peer.” “Bahnsen's mind is razor sharp,” says Blake White in his brief review of Always Ready. Another source refers to Bahnsen as “the man atheists fear most.”

Given this noteworthy adulation, one would suppose that, if anyone can tackle “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’,” it would be Greg Bahnsen. And many Christian warriors would probably agree with this, supposing that books like Always Ready and its 31st chapter are quintessential armaments against the Christian worldview’s critics and the objections they raise. “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’,” then, gives us a firsthand look at how this amply lauded apologist addresses a matter of fundamental importance to the Christian worldview.

As I pointed out at the beginning of my examination of Bahnsen’s chapter on “Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’,” Christianity’s defenders are prone to characterizing the non-believer’s rejection of “the supernatural” as a symptom of some unjustifiable “bias” or unfair “prejudice” which precludes an honest hearing of the case for supernaturalism or validation of knowledge whose source is in “the supernatural.” But if it turns out that, when the defense they offer for the notion of “the supernatural” is full of gaping holes and missed opportunities, as we find in the case of Bahnsen’s treatment of the issue, such charges are shown to have no credibility whatsoever. Over and over we find that Bahnsen ignores fundamental questions to the point that it becomes clear that he is seeking to evade them. This became clear by reviewing his attempt to deal with “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’” with a few basic questions germane to the topic of the chapter in mind, such as:

How can one “know” what the believer calls “the supernatural”?

By what means does the believer have awareness of what he calls “the supernatural”?

How does the believer distinguish what he calls “the supernatural” (or “God”) from what he may merely be imagining?

How is “revelation” as applied to the bible different from simply assuming that the stories in the bible are true?


Add to this list the question of how the notion of “the supernatural” is compatible with the principle of objectivity, the primacy of existence metaphysics, and rational philosophy in general, and we find that Bahnsen simply did not do his homework on the issue.

Instead of addressing questions of this nature, Bahnsen expends much of his energy baldly asserting Christian dogma as if it were self-evidently true and trying to discredit rival positions, as if doing so will somehow resolve “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’.” At no point does he validate the notion of "the supernatural," explain why we should believe it is anything other than imaginary, identify the means by which man can have awareness of it, or show how belief in "the supernatural" is compatible with the principle of objectivity and rational philosophy.

Upon close examination of what Bahnsen does present, we find numerous new problems instead of any resolutions, such as:
  1. Bahnsen nowhere identifies in clear terms the starting point which grounds a “comprehensive metaphysic” suitable for man, the means by which one might have awareness of its starting point, or the process by which one can know that its starting point could be true.

  2. Bahnsen’s conception of “supernatural” (“whatever surpasses the limits of nature”) is too open-ended for his own apologetic interests. It does not specify any actual thing, and could apply to anything one imagines. To accept "the supernatural" on Bahnsen's conception of it, would be to accept not only Christianity's supernatural beings, but also those of other religions, since - like Christianity's supernatural agents - the supernatural agents of other mystical worldviews likewise "surpass the limits of nature." Also, in practical matters, “whatever surpasses the limits of nature” quite often spells danger and disaster for man.

  3. Bahnsen nowhere enlightens his readers on how they can know “the supernatural," even though the very title of the 31st chapter of his book suggests that this is something he would be setting out to do in that chapter.

  4. Bahnsen totally neglects the issue of how one might have awareness of what he calls “the supernatural.” He notes at many points that one does not have awareness of “the supernatural” by means of sense-perception, or by any empirical mode of awareness. However, this only tells us how we do not have awareness of “the supernatural.” It leaves completely unstated how one does have awareness of “the supernatural,” if in fact he claims to have such awareness. Bahnsen resists identifying what that mode of awareness is.

  5. Bahnsen’s theology entails knowledge acquired and held by a passive, inactive mind, which is a contradiction in terms. The “knowledge” in question is the “knowledge of the supernatural” that Christians claim to have as a consequence of divine revelation, which is characterized as the Christian god coming to man rather than man "speculating" or "groping" his way to it through some cognitive activity.

  6. Bahnsen promulgates a most tiresome and outworn dichotomy: either the mind is passive and inactive in its acquisition of knowledge (since its “revealed” to him by supernatural spirits), or he is left with “arbitrary speculations.” This arbitrary dilemma ignores the very faculty by which man acquires and validates knowledge in the first place, namely reason.

  7. Bahnsen provides no indication of how one can confidently distinguish “the supernatural” from what he is imagining. If there is a difference, then the ability to distinguish them is of vital concern, since neither “the supernatural” nor the constructs of one’s imagination exist in the “here and now,” are beyond the testimony of the senses, and “surpass the limits of nature.” In other words, since the imaginary and "the supernatural" look and behave very much alike, the absence of an objective process by which the one can be reliably distinguished from the other indicates a glaring epistemological oversight of enormous proportions, suggesting that our leg is being pulled.

  8. Bahnsen exhibits a hesitant fickleness regarding the role of inference in knowing “the supernatural.” Is his god’s existence inferred from objectively verifiable facts (if yes, from what objectively verifiable facts?), or directly known (if yes, by what mode of awareness?)? At times he seems to be affirming the former, at others the latter. At no point is he explicit in how exactly the human mind can have knowledge of a being which "surpasses the limits of nature."

  9. Bahnsen expends much energy focusing his readers’ attention on purported failings of non-believing worldviews, even though they are irrelevant to explaining how one can acquire and validate knowledge of “the supernatural.” The detection of internal problems within Logical Positivism, for instance, is not a proof of the existence of "the supernatural," nor does it serve to inform any epistemological basis to suppose that "the supernatural" is real.

  10. Bahnsen seems resentful of epistemologies which take sense perception as a starting point - that is, as the fundamental operation of consciousness upon which knowledge of reality depends - but nowhere identifies any clear alternative. Indeed, he seems not to have thought this through very well at all. For upon analysis it becomes clear that “special revelation” (i.e., accepting whatever the bible says as truth) requires sense perception in order to “read the book,” and “general revelation” (i.e., inferring the Christian god’s existence and/or message from what we discover in nature) also involves sense perception (as a mode of awareness of nature) as well as at least in part consulting “internal evidences” – which could be feelings, wishes, imagination, hopes, etc. So there is strong evidence here of an ad hoc approach to epistemology as such.

  11. Bahnsen is oblivious of how conceptualization works. This is can be attributed to the fact that Christianity does not have its own theory of concept-formation. Specifically, much of his case against supernaturalism’s detractors demonstrates that he does not understand the relationship between the perceptual level of awareness and the conceptual activity. For instance, Bahnsen supposes that a comprehensive metaphysic cannot be based ultimately on sense experience because sense experience is “limited.” But concepts allow a thinker to expand his awareness beyond what he personally experiences and while still basing his knowledge ultimately on what he experiences. So the conflict against which Bahnsen reacts is really due to his own ignorance of the nature of concepts.
  12. Bahnsen shows that he must appeal to the supernatural in order to validate the supernatural, which is terminally circular.
  13. Elements in Bahnsen’s case are incompatible with elements that are part of the worldview which he is trying to defend (e.g., that appearances are distinct from reality, and yet “the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen” per Romans 1:20).

So instead of providing an objectively reliable answer to the problem he purports to be addressing in the 31st chapter of his book Always Ready, Bahnsen relies on a list of cheap gimmicks and blaring gaffs that carry him haphazardly into areas that no careful thinker would want to go. Persisting throughout the chapter is Bahnsen’s ignorance of the relationship between the perceptual and the conceptual levels of human consciousness. In fact, it is this relationship that is key to unraveling many of Bahnsen’s confusions over issues such as the purported dichotomy between appearance and reality (which Bahnsen raises, but does not explain or resolve), the conceptual (as opposed to “empirical”) nature of knowledge, the fundamental weaknesses of Logical Positivism, and a host of other related issues. In typical presuppositionalist fashion, Bahnsen seeks to exploit this ignorance, which he shares with many unwitting non-believers as well, in a concerted effort to turn the spotlight from the problem which he should be addressing in his chapter (given its title), to problems which he perceives in rival worldviews. But anyone should be able to recognize that pointing out a problem in someone else’s position does nothing to validate the claim that “the supernatural” is real and that “knowledge” of it is legitimate. Exposing fundamental errors in Logical Positivism, no matter how egregious they may be, will not explain Bahnsen allegedly acquires knowledge of what he calls “the supernatural.”

But in spite of these problems which should be obvious to any critical thinker, we still find that many are charmed by Bahnsen’s sophistry. Blake White, for instance, in his review of Always Ready, tells us that

Bahnsen spends a lot of time on epistemology and the need for a truly Christian theory of knowledge.

What contribution does Bahnsen make on the topic of epistemology when he doesn’t address the fundamental questions pertaining to “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’,” and how do the gimmicks, fallacies and evasions listed above address man’s need for a theory of knowledge? Contrary to what White tells his readers, Bahnsen gives us at best an epistemology of utter negligence.

In conclusion, then, we can with certainty say that any appeal to the supernatural is irrational. This is because supernaturalism assumes the primacy of consciousness metaphysics, which constitutes a crass departure from the reality-based orientation to the world which makes rationality possible in the first place. In addition to this, appeals to supernaturalism fail to identify how the content of its claims can be established in a manner consistent with the nature of the human mind and its cognitive functions; they fail to identify the means by which one can acquire awareness of that which is allegedly “supernatural,” how claims that supernatural beings exist can be validated, and how such claims can be tested for their supposed truth value. Adherents to supernaturalism are quick to point to the means by which supernatural claims are not validated or tested, but fail to identify the means by which they could be validated and tested. Furthermore, adherents to supernaturalism fail to provide a method for distinguishing what they call “the supernatural” and what they may merely be imagining, thus priming the mind of one who is prone to believing supernatural claims for compromising fact with fantasy. As evidence of these points indicating the irrationality of supernaturalism, adherents of supernaturalism inevitably find that they need to appeal to their supernaturalism in order to defend their supernaturalism, which is viciously circular and therefore fallacious. So not only is supernaturalism by virtue of its nature and content irrational, it also invites the call for fallacy in its defenses. To accuse non-supernaturalists of an “unjust bias” for their rejection of supernaturalism, then, is consequently also irrational, indeed hypocritical.

by Dawson Bethrick

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Bahnsen on "Knowing the Supernatural" Part 17: "Naturalism versus Supernaturalism as Worldviews"

Continued from Part 16.

"Naturalism versus Supernaturalism as Worldviews"

A common tactic throughout Bahnsen's apologetic is to focus the spotlight of his (and his readers') attention on the purported failings of "unbelievers" who remain anonymous and thus by implication include virtually any non-Christian that a believer may encounter. By dwelling on purported failings of non-believing worldviews, Bahnsen is safe to ignore the issues surrounding his claims that I have highlighted throughout my analysis of his chapter on "The Problem of Knowing the 'Super-Natural'." Concentrating on what other worldviews do or don't do puts these issues securely out of mind. The intention here should be obvious: to direct the thinker's attention away from the questionable nature of religious claims while putting those who do not accept those claims on the defensive. It's nothing more than an attempt to shift the burden of proof. This is why Bahnsen devotes so much of his chapter on raking over failings of certain philosophies and happily leaves the reader free to assume that those failings are endemic to any non-believing worldview by virtue of its non-belief. In this sense, Bahnsen's captivation with what "anti-metaphysicians" may be guilty of endorsing serves as an effective red herring, dragging the reader off the trail which Bahnsen should be following (in order to explain how one can have knowledge of what Christianity calls “the supernatural”) and onto something irrelevant (e.g., Logical Positivism contradicts itself) to the task at hand.

This embedded fallacy is key to the presuppositionalist strategy of framing the debate as a clash of opposing worldviews. If debate concerning the existence of a god reduces to a conflict between two rival philosophies, and it is implicitly accepted that the two philosophies involved in that clash are jointly exhaustive (i.e., the only two possible), and the philosophy opposing the Christian worldview is exposed to suffer certain fatal internal problems, then – so goes the reasoning – Christianity wins by default. Such a strategy will of course be satisfactory to those who are confessionally committed to the Christian faith (i.e., to the hope that it is true), but it is hard to see how such a scheme could be deemed intellectually responsible.

We see this kind of reasoning in action when Bahnsen opens the final section of “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’,” the 31st chapter of his book Always Ready with the following statement:

Enough has now been said to make it clear what kind of situation we have when an unbeliever argues against the Christian's claim to knowledge about the "super-natural" - when the unbeliever takes an anti-metaphysical stand against the faith. (Always Ready, 189)

So while earlier Bahnsen focused on the failings of Logical Positivism, he now conflates Logical Positivism with non-belief as such by intimating that non-belief entails a rejection of metaphysics (even non-supernaturalist metaphysics). This is most na├»ve. One does not need to reject the philosophical branch of metaphysics in order to recognize the irrationality of god-belief, Christian or otherwise. Bahnsen acts as if he’s felled all non-believing worldviews by toppling one. Not only is this deceptive, it does not address any of the questions which have been raised on the topic of “knowing the ‘super-natural’.” Meanwhile, Bahnsen’s hoping that everyone’s looking the other way. Here’s one who isn’t.

Bahnsen claims:

The believer holds, on the basis of infallible revelation from the transcendent Creator, certain things about unseen reality (e.g., the existence of God, providence, life after death, etc.). (Always Ready, 189)

Bahnsen still does not address the fundamental question here, namely: how did the believer acquire awareness of this “revelation”? Again we come back to the “problem of knowing the ‘Super-Natural’,” which Bahnsen seems unable to address. Did the believer not learn it from the bible? If so, this would have required him to use his senses. Reading a book is hardly a supernatural event. This would mean that the source of “revelation” is actually material in nature: a book consisting of paper pulp and synthetic jacket material, produced by human effort and distributed by a vendor, often for financial profit. This is essentially what constitutes “divine revelation” for the Christian. Ironically, the believer’s own sense perception is plays an inextricable role in his acquisition of knowledge of the Christian god’s “revelation” if reading the bible is how he acquired awareness of it.

But this suggests that “revelation” for the Christian believer is nothing more than simply believing whatever he reads in a storybook. Indeed, it even suggests that “revelation” consists of assuming that whatever the bible says is true, even before one has read all of it. This is not uncommon among Christians, who consider it a virtue to believe religious pronouncements on the basis of faith. Not only does such an attitude not require the existence of a god to explain it (for it is an attitude that any parent can foster in his philosophically defenseless children, for instance), it also goes against certain statements by Bahnsen’s own mentor, Cornelius Van Til. For instance, in his book A Survey of Christian Epistemology, Van Til wrote:

Who wishes to make such a simple blunder in elementary logic, as to say that we believe something to be true because it is in the Bible? (p. 12)

Here Van Til clearly indicates that it “a simple blunder in elementary logic” to suppose that something is true simply “because it is in the Bible.” What implications does this statement have for the notion of “revelation,” whereby “revelation” ultimately signifies believing whatever is written in the bible? Nowhere does Bahnsen seem to deal with this problem, and in the meanwhile he still fails to explain how one can “know” what he calls “the supernatural.”

Regarding this, Bahnsen affirms that

Knowledge of such matters is not problematic within the worldview of the Christian. (Always Ready, 189)

And we can see why. For as we saw in Part 13, if the believer grants one arbitrary premise, why not grant others? And if simply believing what is written in the bible constitutes “revelation” of the Christian god, then of course it would be easy to ignore epistemological questions (as Bahnsen does), since there really is no epistemology here: all one needs to be able to do is read and be willing to regard whatever he reads in the bible as unquestionable truth. Questions about the means and range of human awareness, the relationship between the conceptual level and the perceptual level of consciousness, the distinction between “the supernatural” and what is merely imaginary, are of no concern here. These matters can be safely swept under the rug so that nobody has to consider them, for indulgence in fantasy has replaced any concern one might develop for the way human cognition operates.

Notice how everything up to this point has served to prepare Bahnsen for an appeal to the supernatural to justify belief in the supernatural, which is viciously circular. In spite of this “simple blunder in elementary logic,” Bahnsen writes:

God knows all things, having created everything according to His own wise counsel and determining the individual natures of each thing; further He created man as His own image, capable of thinking His thoughts after Him on the basis of revelation, both general (in nature) and special (in Scripture). (Always Ready, 189)

Encapsulated within this statement, we have what can be validly called the summary description of an epistemology of pretended vicariousness. It consists of justifying a claim to knowledge that is not rationally defensible by inventing an all-knowing deity which, on account of its all-knowingness, would know what the believer claims to know. As such, it serves as a substitute for justification, one which is supposed to be superior to any that the believer himself could ever provide of his own (which would immediately be dismissed as a product of “autonomous reasoning” if it were presented by a non-believer). Now frankly, anyone can do this. It just requires a willingness to fake reality, not only to others, but to oneself (for as Bahnsen demonstrates, the proponents of such vicariousness take it seriously). Appealing to an imaginary being that is omniscient and infallible can cover any lie, deception, fraud or arbitrary claim one wants to promote. This is the appeal to “someone smarter than I knows, so it doesn’t matter what I don’t know” gimmickry that colors the whole of Christian “epistemology.” For the Christian believer, when it comes to knowledge, it is not what he (the believer) knows, it is what (the believer claims) his god knows. And since his god knows everything, then the appeal to what (he claims) his god knows is a sure bet, given his mystical premises. The believer can even claim to have insight into his imaginary deity’s decrees by claiming to “think” its thoughts “after Him,” thereby increasing his descent into the labyrinth of self-deceit. For Bahnsen, this is the stuff of philosophy. And while such an ability to “think” the “thoughts” of an omniscient and infallible being should endow Bahnsen with astounding mental capacity, what we find instead is quite disappointing.

Unfortunately for Bahnsen, he makes at least one thing indisputable: that he has no rational defense for those mystical premises which he clearly wants to take for granted. Observe:

Thus man has the rational and spiritual capability to learn and understand truths about reality which transcend his temporal, empirical experience - truths which are disclosed by his Creator. (Always Ready, 189)

Clearly Bahnsen thinks that truths which “go beyond” the perceptual level of consciousness, must be "truths which are disclosed by [the Christian god]." For how else could man know them if his primary faculty of awareness is sense perception? This amounts to nothing more than a confession of ignorance and serves as further evidence that Bahnsen does not understand the relationship between the perceptual and the conceptual levels of consciousness. This persisting default is commonplace in presuppositionalism. The fallacy behind this symptom is made most obvious in non sequiturs such as the following:

there is no universality in perception so that which is based on perception cannot be universal. (Peter Pike, The Contra-Pike Files, p. 79)

It is true that perception does not provide us with universal awareness. But as I have already shown, if we could have direct awareness of all things past, present and future such that we were omniscient, we would not need concepts to retain our knowledge in the first place.

Moreover, the argument that “that which is based on perception cannot be universal” ignores the fact that universality is a property of concepts resulting from the mental operation of measurement-omission. Universality is nothing more than the open-endedness of a concept’s range of inclusive reference, and this open-endedness of a concept’s range of reference is what measurement-omission makes possible. There is no reason (and unsurprisingly, Pike offered none) for supposing that concepts cannot be open-ended in their range of reference because they are ultimately based on perception. Perception gives us direct awareness of actually existing objects, and these objects are used by the mind as models from which concepts are formed by a process of abstraction and according to which similar units can be mentally integrated when they are encountered. So while perception does not give us universal awareness, the concepts which we form on the basis of what we perceive do in fact universal reference.

Notice how crucial a role presuppositionalism gives to ignorance here. Mysticism is borne not only in ignorance, but also in the desire to perpetuate that ignorance. We have seen how insidiously presuppositionalism seeks to exploit a thinker’s ignorance of the way his mind operates in order to substitute an objectively informed understanding of how it works with an elaborate fiction resting ultimately in imagination, ad hoc invention and intellectual self-negation, such as we have seen. We saw rudimentary elements of this syndrome in Bahnsen’s debate with Gordon Stein, where Bahnsen seeks to mock Stein for not having a ready answer to Hume’s “problem of induction.” Bahnsen was so eager to fault Stein for this, not because Stein was a dimwit, but because doing so is apologetically expedient. The presuppositionalist defense claims that the problem of induction is answered by an appeal to the supernaturalism of Christianity, indicating that the apologist has at best a storybook understanding of induction. This simply announces that Bahnsen and co. do not have a conceptual understanding of induction. A persisting ignorance of the nature of concepts, the process by which they are formed, their relationship to the perceptual level of consciousness, and the rich implications they have for philosophy in general, is one of the calling cards of the presuppositionalist.

Again, Bahnsen must appeal to the supernatural in order to validate his supernaturalism:

It is evident that the Christian defends the possibility of metaphysical knowledge, therefore, by appealing to certain metaphysical truths about God, man, and the world. He reasons presuppositionally, arguing on the basis of the very metaphysical premises which the unbeliever claims are impossible to know in virtue of their metaphysical nature. (Always Ready, 189)

Again Bahnsen announces that he does not understand either the process by which general truths about reality are discovered and formulated, or their relationship to our experience (both in their formulation as well as their application). He thinks he needs an invisible magic being to impart these truths to us, which is a dead giveaway that he is going by premises he got from a storybook rather than legitimate knowledge of the mind and the world. He says that these truths “transcend [man’s] temporal, empirical experience,” but does not give an example of such truths. Does he explain how these “truths... are disclosed by his Creator”? No, he does not. He neither gives any details about such a phenomenon, nor does he explain how he knows that this takes place. He simply asserts it to be the case. But notice how Bahnsen really means “supernatural” here rather than “metaphysical” proper. Intellectually, it is not sufficient merely to affirm that knowledge of “the supernatural” is “possible,” and leave it at that. This would only abandon knowledge, a key value to man’s life, to the wilds of the imagination. But nowhere does Bahnsen either seem to recognize this, nor does he seem at all concerned by it. His primary concern is discrediting Christianity’s detractors, and in his vigilance to submit the opponents of the Christian worldview to a setup and a shakedown, as if the truth of Christianity could be established as the result of pulling off some devious sting operation. This will only turn off honest inquirers, and announce to virtually all comers that the apologist is trying to hide something dishonest here.

But notice Bahnsen’s description of the presuppositional method here. He makes it clear that “presuppositional reasoning” involves “arguing on the basis of the very... premises” which the non-believer disputes. So it is clear, by what Bahnsen says here, that he wants to treat as a given that which is already controversial. This is quite an admission, one which exposes the profoundly anti-intellectual nature of presuppositional apologetics. It suggests that he has no intention of presenting a defense for those premises which he acknowledges as being controversial. This is not the course of reasoning one would take in an upstanding philosophical debate. Bahnsen needs to be prepared to defend those premises which are disputed from the very beginning rather than simply affirm them in spite of their controversial nature. But his preferred method only raises the suspicion that he cannot in fact defend them, but wants to cling to them nonetheless.

Bahnsen continues:

However, the anti-metaphysical unbeliever has his own metaphysical commitments to which he is presuppositionally committed and to which he appeals in his arguments (e.g., only sensible individuals or particulars exist). (Always Ready, 190)

If the non-believer has metaphysical commitments of his own, then perhaps characterizing him as “anti-metaphysical” may actually be inaccurate. Perhaps he simply rejects Christianity's metaphysics. This alone would not make him "anti-metaphysical." Since Logical Positivism is not the universal testimony of non-Christians, what may very well be the case is that the non-believer rejects Christianity because its metaphysics, epistemology (to the extent that it has an epistemology) and its ethics are in conflict with what he knows about reality and with his intellectual and axiological needs. And though he may recognize that there is a conflict here, he may not be able to articulate it very clearly or explicitly. In fact, the presuppositional apologetic is counting on the non-believer not being well informed on these matters (for instance, I doubt Gordon Stein thought that he was attending a debate on the problem of induction). An informed mind is more likely to be able to defend itself against the apologist's program of bamboozling, and conversely an uninformed mind is more likely to be vulnerable to such bamboozling.

Now while Bahnsen has stated on numerous occasions that everyone has their “presuppositions” (cf. Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, pp. 461-462), he seems to resent non-believers for having their own:

His materialistic, naturalistic, atheism is taken as a final truth about reality, universally characterizing the nature of existence, directing us how to distinguish appearance from reality, and resting on intellectual considerations which take us beyond simple observation or sense experience. The this-worldly outlook of the unbeliever is just as much a metaphysical opinion as the "other-worldly" viewpoint he attributes to the Christian. (Always Ready, 190)

Yes, the "this-worldly outlook of the unbeliever" is in fact a metaphysical outlook (in the sense of metaphysics as the branch of philosophy which formulates a view of existence as a whole), just as the other-worldly view of the Christian is. The non-believer may be a non-believer ultimately because he takes the fact that reality exists as a final truth, whereas the theist chooses to treat the fact that reality exists as a derivative truth, one that is "contingent" on the wishing of an invisible magic being.

The non-believer is simply being consistent with the recognition that wishing doesn’t make it so; whereas the believer is affirming a metaphysical position which essentially affirms that reality conforms to conscious intentions (at least to those of an invisible magic being), which robs him of any basis on which to affirm with the non-believer that wishing does not make it so. And while many non-believers do not identify this metaphysical orientation explicitly, and many may in fact not be totally consistent with it, it does have a name: the primacy of existence.

So what does Bahnsen do now that the non-believer willingly acknowledges that his position has a metaphysical basis to it? He proceeds to characterize him as contradicting himself by putting words into his mouth:

What is glaringly obvious, then, is that the unbeliever rests upon and appeals to a metaphysical position in order to prove that there can be no metaphysical position known to be true! He ironically and inconsistently holds that nobody can know metaphysical truths, and yet he himself has enough metaphysical knowledge to declare that Christianity is wrong! (Always Ready, 190)

No doubt this would a self-defeating position for one to take (though not all non-believers affirm what Bahnsen attributes to them). But what does it have to do with "knowing the 'super-natural'"? Predictably, Bahnsen turns every opportunity to "account for" his worldview into an occasion to lambaste those who do not believe in his invisible magic being (even if it means attributing to them a position they do not affirm). What is irresponsible is the fact that Bahnsen does not caution his readers to keep in mind that not all non-believers repudiate the philosophical branch of metaphysics. This is in addition to his default on the very topic of the thirty-first chapter of his book Always Ready.

For Bahnsen, it always boils down to a matter of antithesis:

It turns out that two full-fledged presuppositional philosophies stand over against one another when the anti-metaphysician argues with the Christian. (Always Ready, 190)

There are two fundamental orientations to the world, the objective and the subjective. I have already explained this in a previous blog: see Only Two Worldviews?

Bahnsen makes it clear that vicious circularity is inevitable and unavoidable for his position, for he must rest his defense of his supernaturalism on an appeal to supernaturalism:

The metaphysical claims of Christianity are based on God's self-revelation. (Always Ready, 190)

This is a confession that Christianity’s “metaphysical claims” do not rest on reason. One must accept those claims on faith, which is the only option open to any position which reduces to the primacy of consciousness. And as I have already shown, Bahnsen’s conception of faith as belief without understanding is clearly indicated by his own statements on the topic.

Then Bahnsen makes a most perplexing claim:

Moreover, they are consistent with the assumptions of science, logical reasoning, and the intelligibility of human experience. (Always Ready, 190)

Specifically, which metaphysical claims of Christianity in particular does Bahnsen think "are consistent with the assumptions of science, logical reasoning, and the intelligibility of human experience"? Is the claim that reality conforms to conscious intentions (cf. Van Til’s “God controls whatsoever comes to pass,” The Defense of the Faith, p. 160), that is “consistent with the assumptions of science, logical reasoning, and the intelligibility of human experience”? How about dead men reanimating and emerging out of their graves, walking around in a city and showing themselves unto many (cf. Mt. 27:52-53) – is this "consistent with the assumptions of science"? How about men walking on unfrozen water (cf. Mark 6:48-50)? And what about water being wished into wine (cf. John 2:1-11)? Why stop there? What about an extra-universal consciousness wishing the universe into being? How about a worldwide flood from which a tiny group of human beings and a collection of all animals living on earth escape on a wooden ark? How are any of these claims, which carry incredible metaphysical implications, at all "consistent with the assumptions of science, logical reasoning, and the intelligibility of human experience"? The intelligibility of human experience does not assume such a cartoon universe paradigm. On the contrary, it assumes the non-cartoon universe of rational atheism. Is it any surprise that Bahnsen does not stop to substantiate his claim here? Indeed, to do so would tarnish his reputation for drive-by assertions.

And instead of substantiating his own claims, Bahnsen prefers to dwell on the perceived errors of others:

On the other hand, the unbeliever who claims metaphysical knowledge is impossible reasons on the basis of presuppositions which are arbitrarily applied, self-refuting, unable to pass their own strict requirements, and which undermine science and argumentation - indeed undermine the usefulness of those very empirical procedures which are made the foundation of all knowledge! (Always Ready, 190)

Again, what does this have to do with unraveling “the problem of knowing the ‘super-natural’”? Pointing out the problems in position A does not validate the assertions informing position B.

Bahnsen closes the 31st chapter of Always Ready with a last gasp which does nothing to explain how one can have knowledge of “the supernatural”:

This is simply to say that the anti-metaphysical position has as its outcome the total abrogation, not simply of metaphysical knowledge, but of all knowledge whatsoever. In order to argue against the faith, the unbeliever must commit intellectual suicide - destroying the very reasoning which he would feign to use against the truth of God! This is too high a personal and philosophical price to pay for prejudices and presuppositions which one hopes can form a roof to protect him from the revelation of God. (Always Ready, 190)

It is indisputable that knowledge requires a metaphysical foundation. And it is true: anyone who disputes this is implicitly drawing from a set of metaphysical assumptions and thus undercutting his own claim. But not just any foundation will do. Philosophers and laymen alike need to examine their own understanding of the world and identify what it holds in terms of the issue of metaphysical primacy. Do they "believe" that reality conforms to the wishes and dictates of a reality-creating, universe-ruling consciousness (even though there is no evidence for such a proposal), or do they recognize that the objects of consciousness hold metaphysical primacy? This is the real root of the antithesis between rational men and those who abandon it.

by Dawson Bethrick