Monday, March 26, 2007

Incinerating Presuppositionalism: Year Two

Today marks the second anniversary of Incinerating Presuppositionalism, the blog dedicated to scorching the scarecrows and strawmen of Vantillian apologetics. For those who may be new to my blog, or who simply want to have a listing of all my entries for the past year in one handy source, I am listing them all below, beginning with the earliest post.

43. Incinerating Presuppositionalism: Year One – 3/26/06

44. Responding to Pavielle – 3/29/06

45. Hitler vs. Mother Theresa: Antithesis or Symbiosis? – 4/7/06

46. Manata’s Powers of Flawgic – 4/26/07

47. Christian Insecurity: A Case Study – 5/2/06

48. Basic Contra-Theism – 5/4/06

49. Jason and the Halluci-Nots – 5/12/06

50. Did the Author of I Peter See the Risen Jesus of the Gospels? – 5/27/06

51. Manata Overboard: Adrift and Without a Paddle – 6/2/06

52. Seeing Through the Hays – 6/6/06

53. Hays on the Cartoon Universe Premise of Theism – 6/19/06

54. Steve’s Hays-ty Reaction to the Cartoon Universe Premise of His Worldview – 6/21/06

55. The Strength’s of the Cartoon Universe Analogy – 6/22/06

56. Steve’s Persisting Haysiness – 6/24/06

57. A Response to Paul – 6/26/06

58. Carr vs. Cole – 6/29/06

59. See, I told you so! – 7/3/06

60. Metaphysical Subjectivism and Christianity’s Cartoon Universe, Pt. 1 – 7/5/06

61. Metaphysical Subjectivism and Christianity’s Cartoon Universe, Pt. 2 – 7/6/06

62. A.S.A. Jones on the Age-Old Rock Question – 7/9/06

63. Slam Dunk! – 7/12/06

64. Theism and Its Piggyback Starting Point – 7/28/06

65. Responding to Chris – 7/30/06

66. Christianity: The Imaginary Friend’s Network – 8/29/06

67. Frame’s Summary of Van Til’s OMA – 9/30/06

68. Gods and Square Circles – 10/12/06

69. Is the Expression ‘Invisible Magic Being’ “Pejorative”? – 10/22/06

70. Those Delicate Christian Sensibilities – 10/28/06

71. “Do unto others...” – 11/23/06

72. The Axioms and the Primacy of Existence – 12/7/06

73. Wishing and the Christian Deity – 12/9/06

74. Chronic Manatism: Boy Wonder and His Invisible Magic Being – 12/11/06

75. Paulianna Apologetics – 12/13/06

76. Reveling in Reversals – 12/15/06

77. Apologetic Evasion Overload – 12/17/067

78. Theism and Subjective Metaphysics – 12/19/06

79. Paul’s “Necessary Propositions” – 12/24/06

80. Faith as Belief Without Understanding – 1/1/07

81. The Ominous Parallels Between Presuppositionalism and Drug Addiction – 2/6/07

82. Exapologist’s Message to Non-Theists – 2/17/06

83. Common Ground Part 1: What Do Believers and Non-Believers Have in Common? - 3/4/07

84. Common Ground Part 2: The Standard of Evaluation - 3/6/07

85. Common Ground Part 3: Metaphysics - 3/8/07

86. Common Ground Part 4: Epistemology - 3/10/07

87. Common Ground Part 5: Ethics - 3/18/07

88. Common Ground Part 6: Cooperation - 3/20/07

89. Common Ground Part 7: Consequences of Division - 3/22/07

90. Inerrancy... Christian Style - 3/24/07

Rest assured, my searing indictment against Christianity in general, and presuppositionalism in particular, shall continue. I have a lot planned for the third year run of Incinerating Presuppositionalism. Over the course of the next few weeks and months, I will be posting blogs on Bahnsen and “the ‘Super-Natural’,” Van Til’s “One-Many Argument” and presuppositional method, Anthony Flood’s attempts to discredit George H. Smith’s Atheism: The Case Against God, as well as presuppositional neglect: Christianity's lack of a theory of concepts which prompts the mystification of mental operations, a chronic philosophic malady lying at the heart of presuppositionalism.

And lots of other fun stuff!

So get ready for another year of blazing fun!

And if any of my readers are interested in matters that I have not addressed or feel I have overlooked something, suggestions and requests can be submitted to I promise at least to look at them.

by Dawson Bethrick

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Inerrancy... Christian Style

We keep hearing from believers that the bible is "inerrant" - i.e., free of internal contradiction, errors and any type of getting facts wrong. These assertions indicate either that the believer has accepted an assessment of the bible before even examining it in the first place, that he is speaking about something he has not read very carefully, that he is committed to denying any instance of contradiction no matter what evidence is presented to him, or that he simply does not know when one statement contradicts another. Of course, some combination of these could also be in play.

Let's look at three passages in the New Testament:

Rom. 14:23 - “whatsoever is not of faith is sin”
Gal. 3:12 - “the law is not of faith”
Rom. 7:7 - “is the law sin? God forbid. Nay”

So, is the law sin, or not sin? The author of Romans, Saul aka Paul, apparently suffered a lapse in memory, which is often the case among those who have a habit of lying. Even liars with a sharp memory slip up here and there. The standing of "the law" in Christianity has long been a cauldron of confusion for those who are committed to inerrancy. The tendency is just to sweep it under the rug and hope no one looks under it. But if one should probe the issue, believers may very well give some very plausible-sounding (albeit rehearsed) explanations for contradictions such as this. But what is interesting is to compare explanations from different believers. Ask two believers a straightforward question, and you just might be amazed at how their responses directly conflict with one another.

Recently for instance, a question was posed to a group of presuppositionalists. The question was:

On the nature of justification there are two kinds: internalism and externalism. Would presuppositionalism fall in more with internal justification? What do you guys think?

The first to respond to this question answered as follows:

No, presuppositionalism is emphatically and explicity opposed to internalism. Critics of presuppositionalism slip up at exactly this point. If Van Til were committed to internalism, he would have concluded that inf act [sic] unbelievers cannot know anything, His critics falsely claim that this is where his philosophy leads, but it doesn't, precisely because it is an externalist philosophy.

This responder is confident and his answer gives no hint of any willingness to backpedal. His mind is firmly made up, and he's ready to stick his neck out for it.

But as soon as that steadfast answer was submitted, another replied with the following statement:

Yep, internal. However, one might try questioning the coherence of the distinction.

While the first responder answered that "presuppositionalism is emphatically and explicitly opposed to internalism," the second responder was a little more nonchalant, but just as confident. "Yep, internal." He does suggest "questioning the coherence of the distinction," but his response clearly indicates that, if "the coherence of the distinction" between internalism and externalism is granted, then "yep," presuppositionalism would weigh in on the side of internalism.

The conflict has yet to be resolved in favor of either internalism or externalism, and I suppose gridlock will get the better of each side in the end. Indeed, it could cause a rift within Vantillian presuppositionalism as controversial as the disputes between Calvinists and Arminians, lasting hundreds of years and occupying endless volumes of overheated exchange.

I'm sure glad these aren't my problems.

by Dawson Bethrick

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Common Ground Part 7: Consequences of Division

This is the final post in my series addressing questions about 'common ground' from the perspective of a rational (and therefore non-theistic) worldview. The original questions were:
  1. What do believers and unbelievers, if they share anything at all, have in common?
  2. How is this common ground to be evaluated?
  3. What is shared/unshared metaphysically?
  4. What is shared/unshared epistemologically?
  5. What is shared/unshared ethically?
  6. In what ways can believers and unbelievers cooperate with one another intellectually/socially/politically?
  7. What consequences do those matters that divide Christian and non-Christian have for how Christians are to do philosophy?
In this post I will give my reaction to the seventh and final question. The previous questions have already been answered here: first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth.

Question 7: What consequences do those matters that divide Christian and non-Christian have for how Christians are to do philosophy?

Answer: It's never been clear to me what people mean when they say "do philosophy." So since my response to this question will largely follow from my own interpretation of what is being asked in it, my answer might not fully satisfy the questioner. But that's okay by me. My answer then will assume that by "do philosophy" the questioner means explore, develop and exchange ideas of philosophical import for the goal of broadening one's own understanding of the world and the workings of his own mind.

One of the consequences of being a Christian is being on the wrong side of truth, reason and reality. As for “doing philosophy,” what contribution could a Christian make to this field of inquiry? The believer could have nothing of his own to contribute to philosophy, for this would smack of “autonomous reasoning.” Whatever is "not of God" is "of the devil," and given the lack of any sure way to tell which is which, one way or another, a conscientious believer will simply be tormented by any issue or topic he encounters. To the extent that a Christian supposes he is contributing to the field of philosophy, he could very well be venturing out on his own, spiritually speaking, and stranding himself in a wilderness of self-worship. This will not bother those believers who are less than conscientious, especially if they are so deluded that they have acquired the habit of confusing themselves with the god they claim to worship. But we should never lose sight of the teaching that the Christian is commanded to “deny himself” (Mt. 16:24), while having one’s own say about things could hardly be in compliance with this commandment.

Meanwhile, a non-Christian, who is not under such commandments, can develop his own conceptions without worrying about such commandments. Moreover, he can show how his conceptions can be applied to living his life. On the other hand, the Christian does not apply Christian “principles” in living his life; rather, he applies them in ending his life. As a bumper sticker I recently saw puts it: “Jesus: Don’t leave earth without him.” But for those of us who are not leaving earth, such advice is as useless as it is ridiculous.

One consequence of being on the wrong side of truth, reason and reality, is (and this is not restricted only to Christians) the resistance to make one’s fundamentals explicit. This is a common ailment throughout Christian apologetic literature, which means that criticizing apologetic writings requires a good degree of philosophical detection. Positions are often stated only in a roundabout, shrouded manner, as if the author realizes that taking a stand would make his position too vulnerable. An unclear position is easier to defend than one held in plain sight. Defenses of mysticism always need to be flexible enough to argue two sides of a contradiction. So implicit, circuitous routes are preferred over coming out and simply declaring one’s primaries. This is why apologists in debate prefer to overwhelm their opponents with a barrage of questions rather than assemble actual arguments establishing a position or refuting another. A strong sense of context is almost never achieved in much apologetic literature because the defender of the faith needs to keep the reader on a wild goose chase. Topics are abandoned almost as quickly as they are raised, and the reader typically does not get a very good understanding of where the apologist is trying to go or what his position on any topic may finally be.

All thinkers, Christians included (to the extent that they think at all), need to recognize that, just as they face a fundamental metaphysical alternative: to live or die, they also face a fundamental epistemological alternative: to think, or to evade thinking. To "believe" a set of claims while renouncing your right to judge the truth value of those claims (cf. "analogical reasoning") is an example of double evasion. It evades the facts that truth is contextual in nature and that reality does not conform itself to what a man accepts in place of truth. It evades the fact that knowledge is not acquired by merely assenting to what one is expected to accept on the basis of fears and threats. Instead it is acquired by means of an objective process which begins with the evidence of the senses and develops in accordance with conceptual hierarchy, for conceptual hierarchy is the essence of logical structure. Christians who truly intend to build trusting and cooperative relationships with non-believers, for example, should take a close look at what their worldview teaches as opposed to what we can learn about reality through our own faculties. So it should be clear that all human beings, whether or not they believe in some “higher power,” share many basic things in common, and the implications of those things do not bode well for any form of mysticism, including Christianity.

The Christian worldview grants metaphysical primacy to consciousness. This is certainly one of the chief issues which divide Christians from non-believers like myself, who recognize the metaphysical primacy of existence. The consequences of their metaphysical commitment are that they contradict themselves on a daily basis, they cannot cooperate with others unless they at least performatively abandon their worldview's teachings, and they cripple themselves conceptually by divorcing what they call "knowledge" from the reality in which they actually exist. Most importantly, they incapacitate their potential to live an honest life, which cannot be compensated by belief in invisible magic beings, no matter how desperately one wishes to believe they are real.

by Dawson Bethrick

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Common Ground Part 6: Cooperation

The questions were asked, and I answered them:
  1. What do believers and unbelievers, if they share anything at all, have in common?
  2. How is this common ground to be evaluated?
  3. What is shared/unshared metaphysically?
  4. What is shared/unshared epistemologically?
  5. What is shared/unshared ethically?
  6. In what ways can believers and unbelievers cooperate with one another intellectually/socially/politically?
  7. What consequences do those matters that divide Christian and non-Christian have for how Christians are to do philosophy?
In the present installment, I will focus on the sixth question. Prior questions have already been addressed: first, second, third, fourth, fifth. The remaining question will be addressed in my next installment.

Question 6: In what ways can believers and unbelievers cooperate with one another intellectually/socially/politically?

Answer: It is only to the extent that a believer does not take his religious teachings seriously and does not attempt to put them into practice consistently, that he will be able to cooperate with others, even other believers. A person whose worldview prostitutes itself by denying man's right to exist for his own sake, will find that cooperation with others is at best a fleeting fancy. When others do not conform to his wishes and commands, nothing will keep him from resorting to force to get others to comply. Assent to the fanstasies of the religious worldview is of paramount importance to the committed believer, and those who do not so assent make themselves targets for the believer's contempt. A worldview which builds its moral theory on the premise that man has a duty to obey someone else's whims, will produce men who seek to rule others through the use of force. And history attests to causal relationship between mysticism, which entails the premise that some minds are supernaturally superior to others, and the use of force. We have learned these lessons all too well:

Faith in the supernatural begins as faith in the superiority of others. (Rand, Atlas Shrugged)

Faith and force... are corollaries: every period of history dominated by mysticism, was a period of statism, of dictatorship, of tyranny." (Rand, "Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World," Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 66)

Have you ever had a co-worker who always thought he was right and that everyone else is wrong? Was it ever easy to cooperate with this individual? Or was it difficult? What if that co-worker could not defend his position reasonably, but instead insisted that everyone just "have faith" in what he said? What would it take to "cooperate" with that individual if not a complete suspension of your own rationality? When someone holds a gun to your head and you do what he says because you're afraid that he will pull the trigger if you disobey him, are the two of you really "cooperating"? If one is willing to cooperate, he does not need to be forced at gunpoint.

In addition, then, to willingness to work together towards a common goal, cooperation requires among other things a presumption of political equality, if only implicitly. But a presumption of political equality is difficult to sustain when one party to the cooperative effort numbers himself among "the chosen" and his colleague(s) among "the damned." The intolerance that is fostered by religious teaching is a sure recipe for division and animosity rather than cooperation and common goals. What political equality can be enjoyed among "the chosen" and "the damned"? Do believers want to cooperate with non-believers? Why would they want to? Aren't non-believers "of the Devil"? Are they not despised by the invisible magic being that they worship and hope to please? And how is someone who is committed to reason going to be able to cooperate with those who believe in invisible magic beings, unless the latter put aside their childish beliefs and behave as rational adults?

Cooperation among individuals depends on how consistently all parties involved embrace reason. A firm commitment to reason as one's only means of knowledge and his only guide to action is a necessary condition for sustained mutual cooperation among individuals. So long as all parties are willing to deal with each other rationally and put aside contentious differences, mutual cooperation will be possible in intellectual, social and political spheres. This essentially means that believers would have to put away their enmity and resentment for non-believers and govern their choices and actions as if their god-beliefs were not true. For, as should be clear, their worldview is far from rational. Cooperation depends on mutual trust, but any opportunity for mutual trust is undermined by what Christianity teaches. Christians are not going to be able to trust those whom they deem to be "of the devil," and non-Christians are hardly going to be able to trust those who condemn them simply for not believing Christianity's subjective proclamations. Mutual trust requires the choice to deal with others rationally. Rationality is the commitment to reason as one's only means of knowledge and his only guide to action. But Christianity condemns such commitment as too selfish, too autonomous, too unconcerned with the dictates of the supernatural. The alternative to a commitment to reason, however, is the choice to compromise reason, to evade truth, to fake reality. This choice will, if unchecked, naturally lead to the willingness to resort to the initiation of force against others when one does not get his way, or to stand by and "turn the cheek" when others employ force. And while the bible nowhere prohibits the initiation of the use of force against others, it also explicitly commands believers to "resist not evil" (Mt. 5:39), so that evil can have its merry way. If they are obedient to this commandment, Christians cannot be counted on to rise up against those who desire to do injustice to them or to anyone else. How can such be trusted as a friend?

If the Christian finds that he needs to cooperate with non-believers, most likely he will find plenty who are willing. But the believer's own worldview may very well cause unneeded problems if he seeks to interject it into the mix. If nothing else, Christianity seeks to divide men rather than unite them. It seeks to instill distrust in believers for "the world" which is thought to be populated by Satan's puppets who need to be evangelized or shunned. II Corinthians 6:14 warns the believer explicitly on this:

Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness?

Although there are exceptions, non-believers are very often quite tolerant of other people and their differences, so long as they do not infringe on an individual's rights. At the very least, non-believers are not monolithically committed to a worldview which sees outsiders as a threat. A worldview which perceives outsiders as inherently threatening stacks the deck against mutual cooperation, and often fosters a cult-like mentality. If taken seriously, Christianity's division of men into opposing collectives will only undermine any opportunity in which believer and non-believer can work together.

This of course suggests that any time a believer cooperates with non-believers in some joint venture, he may very well not be taking Christianity's divisive teachings very seriously. After all, why would a believer, who is commanded to come out from among those of the world and "be separate" from them (cf. II Cor. 6:17), be willing to join a sports team, accept a job or enter a business contract when doing so will align him with nasty non-believers? Why would a believer accept payment from non-believing customers when they are said to be “dead in their sins” (Eph. 2:1-5) and condemned as wicked enemies of Christ? What exactly is so “wrong” about not believing anyway? If a man is honest to himself and recognizes that he does not believe, do believers think he should lie and say he believes anyway? Do believers have the kind of character that would prefer men to lie and say they believe, or to be honest and openly admit that they think Christianity is nonsense? Or, do believers prefer a policy of "don't ask - don't tell" when it comes to interacting with non-believers on the job, in the marketplace or at the sports bar?

by Dawson Bethrick

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Common Ground Part 5: Ethics

This post continues my series on considering the questions pertaining to the issue of "common ground" which occupies the focus of many a presuppositionalist. In the present installment, I provide my own position in regard to the question of what believers and non-believers share in terms of ethical matters.

The original questions that were posed were:

  1. What do believers and unbelievers, if they share anything at all, have in common?
  2. How is this common ground to be evaluated?
  3. What is shared/unshared metaphysically?
  4. What is shared/unshared epistemologically?
  5. What is shared/unshared ethically?
  6. In what ways can believers and unbelievers cooperate with one another intellectually/socially/politically?
  7. What consequences do those matters that divide Christian and non-Christian have for how Christians are to do philosophy?
The present installment will focus on the fifth question. The questions before it have already been addressed here: first, second, third, fourth. I will devote individual blogs to each of the following blogs in due course.

Question 5: What do believers and unbelievers share in regard to ethics?

Answer: I have already written several times about the differences between Christian morality and objective morality. See for instance these blogs:

It is not difficult to identify the differences between believers and non-believers when it comes to ethics or morality. But the present question asks what believers and non-believers have in common when it comes to the issue of morality. Believers and non-believers both share the same meta-ethical basis, namely their biological nature, even if they are not aware of the implications which this fact has for value theory, and even if their expressed viewpoints reject its fundamental relevance. A comment by Porter on this issue succinctly puts the pervading attitude to rest while pointing to its remedy:

Philosophers are unmoved by biological values. They want moral values and they want emotions. Moral values are justified, or not, by their relation to the valuer's genuine self esteem, a distinctively human biological need (thanks Nathan). And emotions are justified (or not) if they correspond to biological values, (or not, like the desire for a cigarette). Each deserves its own explanation. But in both cases, we can see already, the is-ought gap is a philosophers' myth.

As I mentioned in my response to the third question, both believers and unbelievers are biological organisms, and as I mentioned in my response to the second question, biological organisms face a fundamental alternative: to live or die. This fact alone isolates the metaphysical basis necessary for the concept ‘value’, since the concept ‘value’ refers to those things which a biological organism requires in order to exist. If human beings did not face the fundamental alternative of life vs. death, they would have no need for values, and therefore no need for value theory. Rocks do not face the fundamental alternative that living organisms do; rocks are not living things and they cannot die. They are not biological. Is it just a coincidence that they also do not need and pursue values? Something that does not face the fundamental alternative of life vs. death (e.g., an immortal deity which is, by definition, immortal and indestructible) has no need for values and no metaphysical basis for valuing one thing over anything else. For such things, utter indifference is the only condition open to it in this regard.

Even believers, at least to some extent, value those things that make their lives possible and worth living, such as food, shelter, technology, know-how, comfort, pleasure, etc., and they regularly act for the purpose of achieving or keeping them. If they are inconsistent in gearing their actions toward the values they need in order to live, they very well may die, just as any of us might if we are inconsistent in governing the relationship between our actions and the values we need. As I point out in The Trappings of Mental Disfigurement:

If you consistently practice a philosophy built on the primacy of consciousness, it will lead you to the same end as Jesus: willingly embracing a premature death.

If an individual wants to die prematurely, his ideal model will be the Jesus of the gospels.

Of course, the believer's value of things that are determined by his biological needs is most easily seen on the concrete level, but it is also evident in the case of so-called intangibles, such as self-esteem, a sense of fulfillment and happiness, which give an individual’s life incentive for living. The believer's problem is that he cannot enjoy his values without guilt, for values are selfish in nature, and the believer's worldview condemns selfishness as an abomination against the Christian god.

In the realm of ethics, a fundamental difference between believers and at least some non-believers (such as myself), is the role they give to reason in identifying values and in guiding their choices and actions. The believer's worldview undercuts value theory because it undercuts reason and the human mind. For believers who endeavor to live their religion consistently, ethical choices are essentially made for them, independent of any inputs from reality and firsthand judgments made on the basis of reason (for reason is condemned as antithetical to theistic commitment because of its "autonomy"). Like pre-programmed robots, believers are expected to obey commandments, and to the extent that they do obey these commandments, they do so, not because their independent rational judgment tells them that they are wise commandments (for this would smack of autonomous reasoning, which trumps faith in god), but because those commandments are believed to have come from a supernatural being (which can condemn a man for any infraction that it can construe).

Consequently, believers as such do not abhor murder because it is a violation of a man’s basic right to exist for his own sake (for the religious texts never affirm such a right, nor do they teach men that they have such a right or why), but because an invisible magic being told them not to do it. It may even be said that they do not abhor murder at all, for they are nowhere commanded to abhor it. After all, life as such for man is not promoted as the standard of value in the first place by such worldviews.

This only implies that if said invisible magic being says they should murder, they would not be against it. It should be noted that the story of Abraham and Isaac in Gen. 22, which is held up as an example of model behavior in Hebrews 11, makes it clear that god’s instruction to Abraham was that he sacrifice his son, but Abraham is nowhere portrayed as protesting this directive, or even questioning it. The believer can point to the 10 commandments and say that is why he opposes murder, even though the commandment against murder never instructs the believer to oppose murder; rather, it simply tells him not to commit it. The bible doesn't even say that murder is "wrong."

So a believer could be all for murder, and yet, if he does not commit murder, he is still compliant with “the law.” But for the believer to condemn murder as morally wrong, he must borrow from a value-based ethical theory, which means he must borrow from a non-Christian worldview which provides such a theory. For such condemnation is in the end inconsistent with the Christian worldview. If one values human life, he will have the moral basis upon which to formulate a social theory that is consistent with this, and thus recognize man's right to exist for his own sake. But it's pretty hard to affirm that man has any rights while endorsing a worldview that praises a supernatural being which, according to the mythology, wiped out almost all of the human race in a fit of rage.

by Dawson Bethrick

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Common Ground Part 4: Epistemology

In this installment of my series on "common ground," I focus on the question of what believers and non-believers share in terms of epistemology. This is a response to the fourth of seven questions posed by an apologist to the All-Bahnsen list in 2005, which were:
  1. What do believers and unbelievers, if they share anything at all, have in common?
  2. How is this common ground to be evaluated?
  3. What is shared/unshared metaphysically?
  4. What is shared/unshared epistemologically?
  5. What is shared/unshared ethically?
  6. In what ways can believers and unbelievers cooperate with one another intellectually/socially/politically?
  7. What consequences do those matters that divide Christian and non-Christian have for how Christians are to do philosophy?
I have already devoted individual blogs to the prior three questions (see here, here and here respectively). The three remaining questions will be addressed in future installments on Incinerating Presuppositionalism.

Question 4: What do believers and non-believer share in regard to epistemology?

Commonality in nature implies commonality in epistemology. As we saw earlier, men are biological organisms, and what we believe will not alter this fact. So long as an individual has certain needs that he must identify and satisfy in order to live, he will need a means of knowledge by which to identify the values he needs and the actions he needs to take in order to achieve them. Man’s knowledge is not automatically given to him, nor is he born with the knowledge he needs for living already in his mind. If this were the case, there would be no need for any discussion about epistemology – i.e., about the method by which knowledge is acquired and validated. We are born tabula rasa, completely ignorant, without any knowledge to begin with. The knowledge we need must be discovered and validated. It must be earned. Not only are we not omniscient, we are also not infallible (unlike the Christian god is claimed to be).

So long as truth does not conform to personal wishing or social consensus, man’s epistemology, regardless of what he wants to say about what lies “beyond” the universe or “beyond” his death, will have to take this fact into account consistently if it is going to serve his needs in life. This of course implies, as we saw above, that believing a claim does not make it true, that the proper orientation which man’s means of knowledge need to adopt is the recognition that truth depends on facts and an objective method of cognition, not on wishing, feelings, ancient stories or rituals, self-sacrifice or imagination.

While all men have these meta-epistemological fundamentals in common, not all men recognize them explicitly, and most systems of thought dismiss them as irrelevant or "uninteresting," or at any rate fatally compromise them even while posing as defenders of truth and reason. They do this primarily by ignoring the fundamental distinction between the subject of cognition and its objects, sometimes even reversing the polarity between them such that the objects of cognition are thought to depend in some way on the subject of cognition. This naturally leads to the view that truth conforms either to one's own preferences and/or wishes, or to social conventions, or to some variation on this theme, e.g., a cosmic consciousness which "controls whatsoever comes to pass" as Van Til puts it (The Defense of the Faith, p. 160). (See Theism and Subjective Metaphysics for more on the different aspects of the primacy of consciousness.)

But in the case of the knowledge that both believers and non-believers need in order to function in the world (specifically, knowledge which enables and guides life-sustaining goal-oriented action), both believers and non-believers generally operate on the same epistemology, which is reason. They have to if they want to achieve anything in reality. There's no alternative to reason if a human being chooses to live. Regardless of what he might believe about the origins of the universe, for instance, a man will nevertheless have guide his actions according to what he discovers about himself (e.g., his requirements for survival) and his environment (e.g., where and how to acquire those values that his life requires) if he wants to achieve certain ends as the result of his actions. This is in keeping with the principle of final causation: the end determines the means. Even the believer secretly recognizes that prayer will not fill his belly with food or start his car for him; he will have to rely on reason in order to find edible food to eat and twist the ignition key to get his car going, just as non-believers do.

Like non-believers, the believer knows that, if he wants to talk to someone who lives in another state, he will have to use a telephone or other technological device, or travel there personally. He knows that others cannot read his mind, just as he cannot read anyone else's mind. The believer knows implicitly, as do non-believers, that if he wants to achieve any goal in the natural world, he will have to guide his actions according to nature's own constraints, including the nature of his own mind. The same is the case with acquiring and validating knowledge of the world. Wishing, imagining and outright denying will not "transcend" nature's constraints. Whether he believes in Jehovah, Elohim, Allah, Horus, Geusha or none of the above, one would have to open his refrigerator and look at the date stamped on his carton of milk if he wants to know if it has expired yet. If he wanted to learn calculus, he will have to learn basic math skills first and progress from there. If he wanted to run a business successfully, he would have to learn some basic economic principles. All these endeavors require reason, and in each case there is no substitute for reason. Imagining, wishing and reading the mind of an invisible magic being will not give man the knowledge he needs to function in the world.

The question at this point becomes: Does a thinker embrace reason consistently, or is he willing to compromise reason for the sake of confessional investments or other non-values? Reason is the faculty by which man discovers and identifies the nature of reality and guides his actions, the faculty by which he perceives and integrates what he identifies into the sum of his knowledge. It is when men abandon reason that they invite problems, not only with others, but also in terms of their own ability to operate effectively in the world. Reason has been downplayed, maligned, vilified, denounced and ridiculed by religious leaders throughout history. They have done this because they are threatened by the human mind, because their teachings are opposed to human reason (cf. "believe or suffer"), and because their livelihood subsists on deceiving other minds into a position of subservience. Only they don't call it 'reason' when they denounce it. Instead, they prefer to hide behind eupehemisms like "the wisdom of this world" (cf. I Cor. 1:19, 2:6) or "autonomous thinking." But it is reason all the same that they despise, for it is the faculty which allows one to live independently of others that the witch doctors seek to censure. They say that reason is "vain," "incompetent," or "futile" if it is not "held captive" to the dictates of a universe-creating, reality-controlling supernatural being whose existence we can only "know" by means of imagination. They seek to subordinate reason to their fantasies just as they seek to subordinate human beings to their whims.

So believers, in order to "explain" the "knowledge" they claim to have received from "beyond," make up notions such as "revelation" and various other expressions of "just knowing," such as "grace," having "the mind of Christ," the "image of God," the "sensus divinitatus," internal messaging from "the Holy Spirit," etc. Revelation is the claim to possess mystical knowledge transmitted from a supernatural source to a human mind. Allegedly revelation is infallible, and so is the believer's reception and understanding of it. It can be invoked any time a position is called into question in order to halt the questioning. After all, who wants to find himself questioning an omniscient supernatural source? But although religious thinkers often speak of epistemology, the claim to have knowledge on the basis of divine revelation simply indicates that discussion of epistemology is a red herring. If knowledge were beamed into man's mind already validated by an infallible and omniscient source, there would be no need for a method of acquiring and validating knowledge on one's own, let alone an understanding of how that method works. The claim to possess "revealed knowledge" allows the believer to say "I don't need to know why it's true, I just know that it is true," leave it at that, and act accordingly, whether he is expected to pay his tithe to the church or take over a crowded jumbo jet at gunpoint. The believer doesn't want people to argue with what he claims to know on the basis of revelation, not only because he has no argument to support it (if he did, this would annul his claim to know it on the basis of revelation), but also because he doesn't want to question it himself.

So when it comes to the believer's religious affirmations, reason no longer applies, for the content of these affirmations is not derived from what he perceives, but ultimately from what he imagines. The believer's religious beliefs are certainly not based on his own firsthand accounts or on the basis of stories which he has personally verified, for these beliefs are based on faith in ancient texts purporting to describe actual events in history. The believer in such things who then acts on the basis of reason in the real world in order to identify and achieve his goals, is essentially operating on two opposite worldviews: one which is suited for a reality which does not conform to consciousness (which is reason, whose basis is the primacy of existence principle), and some other “faculty” which stems from a fantasy world in which reality does conform to consciousness (mysticism, which rejects the primacy of existence). While his actions in the world show that he has no choice but to deal with reality on its own terms, his religious beliefs describe a world which readily reshapes itself to accommodate someone’s wishing. The world informed by his religious beliefs is run by invisible magic beings who can assume the shape of animals (such as the devil masquerading as a snake in the Garden of Eden), manifest themselves in spectacular ways (such as the burning bush that Moses encounters on the summit of Mt. Sinai), and cause other reality-defying acts (“miracles”) to happen (such as the turning water into wine, feeding of 4,000, walking on water, quieting storms, raising the dead, etc.).

Now, these meta-epistemological preconditions will not prevent a thinker from abusing his own mind and pretending it has abilities or content that he does not actually possess. In the fake environment projected by religious belief, some minds have the power to foretell future events. And even though making predictions wildly general and even vague, or setting them down after the fact, can make them seem legitimate to the uncritical eye, believers today typically do not govern their lives as if their own attempts to predict even the weather carry any legitimate weight.

The believer did not look at the world about him and conclude from perceptual evidence that it was created by a cosmic being's act of will. Observing a natural, material, finite and corruptible world will not uncover evidence of a supernatural, immaterial, infinite and incorruptible being beyond it. Reason does not tell us that any invisible magic beings exist. As Christian apologist Michael Butler confides,

The only way we know that God is a Trinity is that He revealed it to us - mere speculation or empirical investigation would never lead us to this conclusion. ("The Transcendental Argument for God's Existence," The Standard Bearer, p. 118.)

Contrast this admission with the statement found in Romans 1:20, which declares

For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.

Of course, if something is “clearly seen,” one would be wrong to call it “invisible.” There is, in Christianity, a tendency toward cognitive schizophrenia as its adherents seek to make sense of its nebulous doctrines and defend the varying stands they are expected to assume. If "the invisible things" of the Christian god includes its supposed "trinitarian" nature, how could it be that this is "clearly seen" when it is also admitted that we could not "know" this feature of the Christian god unless it were "revealed" to us? And just how clearly was this "revealed" to us anyway? None of my bibles make any mention of a "Trinity." What precisely about Christianity's supposed truths are we supposed to be able to "clearly see" in the world such that we "are without excuse"? When I look out at the world around me, nothing I see tells me that it was all created by an act of consciousness. But this is something that I am supposed to "clearly see" in the world, according to Romans 1:20. That the believer would have to resort to quoting the bible in order to show that the natural world itself bears striking evidence of a creator defeats its own purpose. If this evidence were so apparent in the natural world, one would not need to rest on the authority of primitive storybooks. He did not go to the zoo and conclude from a survey of the animals residing therein that at one time some four thousand or so years ago, two (or seven?) of each were herded onto an ark and rescued from a worldwide flood. He did not look at other human beings and conclude from their nature or actions that a god-man was born of a virgin, baptized by John, assembled a group of 12 followers, preached a message and taught in parables, performed miracles and cured the lame, the infirm, the blind, that this god-man was tried by a regional principal who did not find him guilty, but released him to be put to death anyway, and that after being put to death this god-man was resurrected three days later and ascended to a place called heaven. None of these things were learned by looking at reality. Belief in these teachings was learned from a set of documents collected in a single tome and said to be true on the basis of divine revelation, not on the basis of rational proof. This is not really a question of epistemology, since the contents of the documents are accepted as truth independent of an objective process of validation. Bible-belief constitutes an abandonment of any method of validating knowledge claims, and thus constitutes an abandonment of man's need for epistemology. The bible does not even develop its own theory of knowledge, let alone a theory of concepts which would be needed to support it. Indeed, these beliefs are affirmed as truth with even more fervor than if they were conclusions to sound arguments, which in itself is a dead give-away that one has no firsthand knowledge of these accounts, that they are being promoted ultimately on the basis of feelings, not reason. Believers become so confessionally invested in the supposed truth of their bible, that it is no longer even a matter of simply believing, but of wanting it to be true. Faithfulness is the hallmark of acting on these "beliefs" and thus constitutes the ultimate in subjectivism.

All of this simply means that if Christianity's claims were in fact rational and provable, its defenders would not need to appeal to "divine revelation." It is because there is no rational validation for their claims that they need to discredit so-called "autonomous reasoning."

Does any of this imply that we cannot learn history from a book? No, it does not. And it is not the case that the bible does not record history; indeed, it documents what some ancient people believed and taught. But what’s noteworthy is not only does the believer claim as unquestionable truth what he cannot verify firsthand (in fact, many apologists resort to skepticism with regard to what they can know firsthand), but also that the views expressed in these early sources assume an orientation between consciousness and its objects that is contrary to the one which the believer himself operates on. The believer thus discounts what can be verified firsthand while endorsing what he could never verify firsthand.

by Dawson Bethrick

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Common Ground Part 3: Metaphysics

This post continues my consideration of seven questions regarding the issue of "common ground" posed by a presuppositional apologist to the All-Bahnsen List in February 2005. Those questions are:
  1. What do believers and unbelievers, if they share anything at all, have in common?
  2. How is this common ground to be evaluated?
  3. What is shared/unshared metaphysically?
  4. What is shared/unshared epistemologically?
  5. What is shared/unshared ethically?
  6. In what ways can believers and unbelievers cooperate with one another intellectually/socially/politically?
  7. What consequences do those matters that divide Christian and non-Christian have for how Christians are to do philosophy?
In the present installment, I will focus on the third question. I have already dealt with the first question here, and the second one here. The remaining questions will be answered in separate blog entries.

Question 3: What do believers and non-believers share in regard to metaphysics?

Answer: Generally speaking, I don't think there is any fundamental metaphysical difference between believers and non-believers. As I mentioned in response to the second question, believing a claim will not change one's fundamental nature or the fact that one must act in order to live. This point is mentioned in keeping with the primacy of existence metaphysics. Believers make use of this principle (for instance, one Christian commented as follows: "Can every other worldview claim to account for ["transcendentals"]? Yes, of course they can CLAIM this, but that doesn’t make it so."), but they cannot account for it on the basis of their own worldview's explicit teachings, which insist on the primacy of consciousness. To make such statements, believers must borrow from an objective and therefore non-theistic worldview, thus implicitly rejecting their professed theism.

Both believers and non-believers are biological organisms, and both are powerless to change this. Some believers might like to think that their ontology has been "enhanced" in some way due to what they believe (cf. II Cor. 5:17), but I know of no reason to accept this as truth. Simply believing a claim is not sufficient to change our natures into something they aren’t. In other words, if I choose to believe, as the Lahu tribesmen believe, that Geusha is the supreme being of the universe, doing so will not exempt me from my need for food and shelter from the elements.

Some believers seem to believe that, because they believe in a god, they will escape death. But any glance at a cemetery will give one an eyeful of crosses lined up in neat little rows, each representing a deceased somebody, many of whom claimed to believe in the Christian god. And yet, there they lie. The cross has always been a fitting symbol of death. Of course, believers might then claim that upon death, their 'souls' will go to a place called “Heaven.” Thus they admit that they do not really expect to escape death, but hope to find paradise in death, a blissful existence in non-existence, essentially seeking eternal contentment in diametric contradiction.

Now anyone can imagine these things, but imagining them does not make them real. "Heaven" is a place that 'exists' only in the believer's imagination, and his hope to journey to this magic kingdom cannot give any value to life on earth because ultimately it undercuts any value one might put on his earthly life. The belief that life is eternally abundant when in fact it is brief and delicate, can only cheapen any value one puts on life in the here and now. So merely holding a belief will not change the biological nature of our being. And believing in an afterlife will not make an afterlife so. To affirm otherwise is to endorse subjectivism.

Metaphysically, believers and non-believers, whether they like it or not, share the same fundamental orientation between their consciousness and the objects they perceive or consider. The believer's consciousness does not create or alter reality any more than does the non-believer's. Only non-believers can be consistently honest about this fact, since believers affirm a worldview premised on the opposite principle: that reality or the universe or the world as such is a creation of consciousness, that a supernatural consciousness "controls whatsoever comes to pass" (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 160). Thus subjectivism is inescapable for the believer, so long as he affirms his religious worldview, and this simply sets him at odds with the reality in which he actually lives.

by Dawson Bethrick

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Common Ground Part 2: The Standard of Evaluation

The question of what "common ground" Christian believers share with non-believers is of great concern within presuppositional apologetics. It often seems that the believer has a vested interest in distinguishing himself from non-believers, who are often viewed with contempt, so as not to be lumped into the same group on a cosmsic or supernatural level. Perhaps this fear is motivated by the supposition that, if the believer looks and acts too much like non-believers, he may inherit the same fate as non-believers. So in his mind, he wants to amplify differences and suppress similiarities. Hence the issue of 'common ground' needs its orthodox spin in order to stave off such fears. But are believers and non-believers really so radically different from each other as apologists seem to think?

My view is that believers and non-believers have a lot in common, and much of what they have in common is often ignored by apologists bent on magnifying differences for the sake of division. Much to the chagrin of presuppositionalism's champions, the commonality between believers and non-believers in fact underscores a rational and therefore non-theistic worldview.

As readers of the first installment in this series will recall, the questions about 'common ground' posed by a presuppositional apologist were the following:

  1. What do believers and unbelievers, if they share anything at all, have in common?
  2. How is this common ground to be evaluated?
  3. What is shared/unshared metaphysically?
  4. What is shared/unshared epistemologically?
  5. What is shared/unshared ethically?
  6. In what ways can believers and unbelievers cooperate with one another intellectually/socially/politically?
  7. What consequences do those matters that divide Christian and non-Christian have for how Christians are to do philosophy?
In the present installment, I will focus on the second question. I have already addressed the first question here, and I will address the remaining questions in future installments to my blog.

Question 2: How is this common ground to be evaluated?

Answer: Once the common characteristics between believers and non-believers have been identified (which I have done here), they should be evaluated objectively. By 'evaluate' I'm assuming the questioner means identify the significance of those common characteristics by examining them in a specific context. An objective evaluation is one which consistently bears in mind the facts that reality exists independent of consciousness, that the task of consciousness is to identify facts as opposed to "creating" them out of nothing, and that the imaginary cannot serve as a substitute for the real.

The context in which I evaluate these common characteristics is in terms of man's life and the values he needs in order to live, which may or may not be the context that the author of these questions had in mind. For instance, the fact that man is a biological organism is significant because it is his nature as a biological organism which makes all these other characteristics possible to discuss. As we saw in my response to the first question, man (whether he believes in Christianity or not) differs from the Christian god in that his life is conditional. It is because man is a biological organism that he faces a fundamental alternative: to live or die. Rocks are not biological organisms, so they do not face this fundamental alternative. It is because man faces this alternative that values are both possible and necessary for his life, since values supply what he needs in order to exist and provide an objective guide for chosen action. Additionally, it is because of the unique kind of consciousness that man possesses as a biological organism that he is able to identify those values which his life requires as well as the actions he needs to take in order to achieve them. And so on.

What is important to note is that one's religious beliefs are irrelevant to these facts: no matter what a man believes about the nature or origin of the universe, about "life after death," or about other religious claims, he remains a biological organism and continues to face the fundamental alternative of life vs. death. What we believe will not change these facts. To suggest otherwise is to embrace subjectivism.

by Dawson Bethrick

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Common Ground Part 1: What Do Believers and Non-Believers Have in Common?


Presuppositionalists often debate amongst themselves about the issue of "common ground," an issue which they invest with tiresome ambiguities and question-begging assumptions. As such, the issue of "common ground" is a tightrope that presuppositionalists are compelled to navigate as a result of various contradictions within the Christian religion's view of man and the antithesis it employs to divide men against each other.

Apologists who assume the presuppositionalist approach often seem to think that non-believers will automatically assume that believers and non-believers share nothing in common. But it is not true that believers and non-believers do not share anything in common. What they do share, however, is not what Reformed Christianity would have us believe. Since both believers and non-believers are human beings, they share many attributes in common, and far from confirming the mysticism of the bible, the characteristics which believers and non-believers have common point to a rational (and therefore non-theistic) worldview which we all need in order to live as human beings.

In this 7-post series, I want to address some questions about 'common ground' posed by a presuppositional apologist on the All-Bahnsen list in February 2005. But instead of answering these questions as a presuppositionalist would, or addressing what presuppositionalists would offer in response to them, I am going to respond to them based on my own philosophical outlook. We will find that there are many aspects that believers and non-believers share in common, in spite of the differences which believers want to highlight over and against these shared characteristics. In fact, I will cite many points which believers and non-believers share in common, and I will show how these points confirm a rational and therefore necessarily non-theistic worldview.

The Questions

The author of the post wrote the following:

A conversation I had with a professor today motivated me to try and get a thread going on the issue of how the common ground between believers and unbelievers is to be articulated. I am not ignorant of the good bit of literature available on this subject c/o the Van Tils and Bahnsens of the world. But I think we would all benefit from the clarity brought by a rehashing/dialogue on the subject. So I'll begin:

    1. What do believers and unbelievers, if they share anything at all, have in common?
    2. How is this common ground to be evaluated?
    3. What is shared/unshared metaphysically?
    4. What is shared/unshared epistemologically?
    5. What is shared/unshared ethically?
    6. In what ways can believers and unbelievers cooperate with one another intellectually/socially/politically?
    7. What consequences do those matters that divide Christian and non-Christian have for how Christians are to do philosophy?
In the present installment, I will focus on the first question. I will devote individual blogs to each of the following blogs in due course.

Question 1: What do believers and unbelievers have in common?

Answer: Believers and non-believers have a lot more in common than many on either side might be ready to admit. For instance, both exist. Both are biological organisms. Both face a fundamental alternative: to live or die. Both have a faculty of awareness (consciousness). Both must act in order to continue existing, and both have the capacity for goal-oriented action. Both have the capacity to identify and integrate the objects they perceive through a process of concept-formation. Both have the choice to think, or to evade thinking. Both have the choice to guide their thinking by reason, or to abandon reason in preference for some other alleged means of knowledge. Both must obey nature in order to achieve their goals. Both have the choice to apply their effort to productive work which results in those values which their life requires (such as food and shelter, due to their nature as a biological organism), or to avoid effort and waste their lives away. Etc. These are general characteristics which both believers and non-believers undoubtedly share, since both are human beings.

I would say that believers and non-believers have a lot more in common with each other than either would have in common with the Christian god, were it to be real. While the existence of both believers and non-believers is self-evident, the existence of the Christian's god is clearly debatable (though there are of course those who seek even to deny this). Unlike believers and non-believers, the Christian god, according to its spokesmen, is not a biological organism. According to those same spokesmen, the Christian god is immortal, eternal and indestructible. So unlike both believers and non-believers, the Christian god does not face the same fundamental alternative that both believers and non-believers face. The Christian god's spokesmen typically assume that it is a conscious being, yet unlike believers and non-believers, it does not have a brain or nervous system which makes this possible. Unlike believers and non-believers, the Christian god is without need or want, and thus would not have to act in order to continue existing. For instance, man needs a constant source of nutrition or consumable energy, but the Christian god apparently does not. Thus the Christian god could do nothing for all eternity, and it would still continue to exist as it has allegedly always been. Spokesmen for the Christian god seem to assume that it is capable of conceptual knowledge, but since they also say it is omniscient and infallible, its knowledge could not be thought of as having been assembled by means of a process of concept-formation, which is a discovery-based process of conceptualization. (Since an omniscient being by definition would know everything that could possibly be known, it would not be able to discover new knowledge; that man can do this simply means that man can do something that the Christian god cannot do.) It's unclear whether the spokesmen for the Christian god would say that their god, like believers and non-believers, faces a choice between thinking and evading thought. If they say that their god necessarily thinks, then it seems they’re denying their god this choice, a choice man clearly has.

Also, since the Christian god is claimed to be omniscient, it wouldn't need reason as a means of discovering and validating new knowledge (unlike believers and non-believers); and since it would not need to act in order to achieve goals that make its existence possible (as believers and non-believers need to do), it would not require reason to guide its actions. Moreover, since Christians claim that nature is a product of their god’s creative activity, they certainly would not affirm that their god has to obey nature in order to achieve any goal it puts before itself; unlike believers and non-believers, the Christian god would be able to conform nature to its will, for its will holds primacy over its creations (cf. "divine sovereignty," "miracles," etc.). As for applying effort to productive work which results in values, the Christian god certainly would not need to produce values in the first place (since it is said to be indestructible and has no needs). And, unlike believers and non-believers, if it wanted to produce something, it would not need to put out any physical effort (since it apparently could just wish things into existence).

So while believers and non-believers share a lot of fundamental characteristics with each other, the Christian god which believers describe is quite opposite to both believers and non-believers on each fundamental. All these fundamental points serve as a pretext for answering more specific questions about common ground between believers and non-believers.

by Dawson Bethrick