Friday, December 26, 2008

The Inherent Subjectivism of God-belief

Recent discussions with Christian visitors to my blog in the comments sections of Could the Christian God be Rational? and Another Response to David: The Anatomy of Legend and the Ruse of Revelation, confirm that ignorance and misunderstanding of the Objectivist rationale for rejecting theism is widespread. In this post I hope to shed some light on common errors Christian apologists might make in responding to Objectivist atheology. In future posts, I plan to interact directly with some more sophisticated efforts to answer Objectivist challenges to theism. In the present post I will focus on the comments which have been made on my blog, specifically to the effect that Christian god-belief avoids the charge of subjectivism.

In a comment dated 14 December 2008, David Parker asked:

You charge theists with metaphysical subjectivism based on the notion that existence should depend on some consciousness (human or divine). Now from reading some previous posts, I see that existence is defined as the sum of existents, which I agree with. But wait, if God exists then He does so necessarily and without dependence on any consciousness. So my question: How does that violate the primacy of existence if an existent, specifically God, is not the result of consciousness?

Similarly, Drew Lewis stated:

I believe that God exists objectively and based on no subjective cause. He didn't create Himself. I do believe that whatever else exists is created by Him.

In both cases, the objection here is that Christian god-belief is not subjective because it holds that the Christian god did not create itself. Now it’s well and good that a system of god-belief holds that its god did not create itself. Unfortunately, this does not sanitize god-belief from its inherent subjectivism. The Objectivist argument which I defend is not that god-belief is subjective because its god allegedly created itself. Rather, the argument is that god-belief is subjective because it ascribes metaphysical primacy to a subject (e.g., “God’s will”) over any and all of its objects, regardless of whether or not that subject is said to have created itself. That is where the root of subjectivism lies in the Christian worldview: in the relationship between its god as a subject and any objects distinct from itself.

To probe this matter, let’s ask some questions.

1. Is this god conscious?

Typically theists think of their god as a conscious being. It is supposed to know things, communicate, feel certain emotions (e.g., anger, wrath), desire things, issue commandments, plan things in advance, judge, etc. All of these activities presuppose consciousness because they involve conscious activity, so it would be strange if a theist denied consciousness to his god. The Westminster Confession of Faith says of the Christian god, among other things, that it is “most wise,” “most loving,” and “work[s] all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will.” So while Christianity’s formal declarations about the nature of its god may not explicitly state that it is supposed to be a conscious being, the fact that the faculty of consciousness is ubiquitously implied by many of the attributes ascribed to its god is unmistakable and undeniable. So in assembling an argument which addresses the claim that the Christian god is supposed to be a Christian god, the Objectivist is in no way mischaracterizing Christian theology. One only needs to go by what Christians themselves claim about their god.

Now let us ask:

2. What is the orientation between the Christian god as a subject of consciousness and the objects of its consciousness?

Since, as we saw above, the Christian god is supposed to possess consciousness, the question as to the orientation between the Christian god as a subject of consciousness, and its objects, is a fair question. In fact, it is one which theists should be prepared to address explicitly. To understand what this question is asking, let us identify the proper orientation in the relationship between man’s consciousness and the objects of which he is aware. The orientation which we have between subject and object is characterized by the primacy of existence: the objects of our consciousness hold metaphysical primacy over the subject of our consciousness. This means that the objects of our consciousness do not conform to our conscious intensions, but rather that the proper function of our consciousness is to conform to its objects. The primacy of existence means primacy of the object in the subject-object relationship. It is from this principle that we get our concept of objectivity.

Tom Porter clarifies the meaning of the primacy of existence principle when he writes:

The primacy of existence means both the absolute metaphysical independence of existence from cognition, and the absolute metaphysical priority of existence over cognition. It means the abject subordination of cognition to existence, the utter dependence of knowledge on its objects. (Ayn Rand’s Theory of Knowledge, p. 197)

According to this principle, then, an object is what it is, independent of what we know about it, or even if we don’t know anything about it. It is what it is, even if we are mistaken about it. An object will not alter or rearrange itself in order to conform to our errors or deficiencies in knowledge. To know an object, our cognition must conform to the object, both in our rudimentary awareness of it (e.g., I must turn my head to see the clock on the wall behind me) and in our identification of it (e.g., if both hands are pointed to 12:00, I would not insist that it indicates that it’s 4:30). In other words, to know an object, we need to gather information from the object itself. But the implications of the primacy of existence do not stop there. It tells us that objects do not conform to our conscious activity.

For example, suppose I see a stapler on my desk. My seeing the stapler does not bring the stapler into existence. It exists independent of my perception of it, my awareness did not cause it to exist. Now if I wish that the stapler be full of staples when in fact it has already run out, my wishing will not automatically reload it so that it is full again. Wishing does not have this power, and that is because the objects of consciousness hold metaphysical primacy over consciousness. If I want the stapler reloaded, I would have to physically reload it, and I could do this only if I have a set of staples to put into it. I could command that the stapler levitate itself to my hand if it is out of my reach, but will the stapler obey my command? No, it won't. Again, it exists independent of my conscious activity. I could imagine that the stapler is really an Asian elephant, but does my imagination turn the stapler into an elephant? No it does not: it remains a stapler all the same, and that’s because existence holds metaphysical primacy over consciousness, the objects of consciousness are what they are regardless of conscious activity. I could forget that my stapler is on my desk. But when I turn around, it’s still there. Why? Because it exists independent even of my forgetfulness, too. I could continue this experiment and test other conscious functions, but the result will always be the same: existence exists independent of consciousness. The primacy of existence cannot be defeated.

Now does this principle, the primacy of existence, characterize the orientation which the Christian god is supposed to enjoy between itself as a conscious subject and any objects in its awareness? It’s hard to see how a theistic believer would think so. A brief look at the Christian god’s career, as described in the bible, is sufficient to settle this question definitively. One need look no further than the opening verses of the book of Genesis, where we read that the god it describes “created the earth and the heaven.” Christians typically take this act of creation by their god to be comprehensive. For instance, Cornelius Van Til gives us the following statement:

Christianity holds that God is the creator of every fact... God’s thought is placed back of every fact. (Christian Theistic-Evidences, p. 88; quoted in Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 378)

Christians usually describe their god’s creation of the universe as an act of will. Again we have Van Til, who wrote:

God wills, that is, creates the universe. God wills, that is, by his providence controls the course of development of the created universe and brings it to its climax. (“Apologetics,” 1959)

Elsewhere Van Til wrote:

We now know that the world exists simply because God wills it. (“The Election of All Men in Christ,” The Great Debate Today, 1970)

Or, as one source puts it:

Fact: God willed the universe into being. Fact: He willed the universe into being by simply speaking it into existence instantaneously. References: Psalm 33:6,9 Psalm 148:5 Hebrews 11:3 Thought: He did not have to speak in order to create, but He did. God could have just thought the universe into being. Instead, He spoke it into being. He used His word to create.

Similarly, apologist Douglas Wilson, in his article The Metaphorical Word, writes:

God spoke the created universe into being. God the Father "God-the-Son-ed" light, and there was light. God the Speaker Worded the heavens and the earth, and so they came to be.

In addressing the question What Do Christians Believe? Answering Islam’s Terrell Smith states:

God is Creator of everything, this vast universe. All was created by His Word. He spoke it into being. It is written: (Genesis 1:3) And God said... and it was so. His Word is powerful... God's Word spoke the universe into being. His Word is powerful beyond our comprehension.

Likewise, in answer to the question Can you explain why God created the universe? Christian author Mike Scott writes:

All things came into being through the will of God. It was God's pleasure that the universe and everything in it be created.

And lastly, Jack Cottrell, in his Sovereignty and Free Will, explains:

God's will is the final and exclusively determinative power of whatsoever comes to pass. The nature of any created thing is what it is because of an act of determination in relation to it on the part of God.

In terms of essentials, all these sources are in agreement: a conscious subject holds metaphysical primacy over its objects. Here we can see this clearly when the Christian god is said to create the objects of its own consciousness by an act of consciousness, either by simply willing them into existence, speaking them into existence, commanding them into existence, etc. It not only creates its own objects, it assigns them their identity as well: things are what the Christian god chooses them to be.

Additionally, it can alter the identity of anything it created at will as well. For instance, in the second chapter of the gospel of John, we read about Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana. Here Jesus, as the incarnated god of Christianity, turns water into wine by an act of will. The water, as the object of the Christian god’s consciousness, obeys the intensions of the knowing subject. Every object obeys its commands. The waters of the Red Sea part upon its command; a few fishes and loaves of bread are multiplied to feed thousands upon its command; the earth quakes upon its command; dead people rise upon its command, etc.

This is certainly not the orientation between subject and object which man’s consciousness has. Where man’s experience, characterized by the metaphysical primacy of existence, is that the objects remain what they are regardless of what he knows, thinks, wishes, desires, commands or insists on, the Christian god is said to be able control its objects by its own conscious activity. Thus in the case of man the objects of consciousness hold metaphysical primacy over the subject of consciousness (i.e., objectivism), in the case of the Christian god the subject of consciousness is described as holding metaphysical primacy over its objects (i.e., subjectivism). It’s completely irrelevant that Christians claim their god did not create itself. The subjectivism of their god-belief is inherent in the orientation it is said to have between itself and everything distinct from it. As Drew Lewis reminds us, “whatever else exists is created by Him.”

In conclusion, we see that the primacy of existence (objectivism) applies in the case of man, but in the case of the Christian god we have the primacy of consciousness (subjectivism). This is what Christians are asking us to believe: that on the one hand, objects do not conform to consciousness (e.g., wishing doesn’t make it so), while on the other hand objects do conform to consciousness (e.g., wishing does make it so). While the primacy of consciousness is unavoidable for us human beings (e.g., reality will not conform to any human being’s wishes), the Christian wants us to believe that there exists a consciousness which does hold metaphysical primacy over its objects (e.g., reality will conform to wishes). Reality has its constraints, constraints which conscious activity will not be able to alter or overcome. However, in the fake environment of the imagination, an individual can project a consciousness which does overcome these constraints. We can imagine a consciousness which even put those constraints in place to start with, “in the beginning,” and thus has the power to defy them or withdraw them altogether. In its essence, religion is the glorification of an imaginary consciousness possessing precisely this power.

The problem for Christians is simply that they do not want to admit that their god is imaginary. When you point out the fact that their god is only imaginary, they tend to retreat in silence. And there’s a good reason why.

by Dawson Bethrick

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Could the Christian God Be Rational?

In the comments section of my blog Rival Philosophies of Fact, the question of whether or not the Christian god could be rational arose in discussion.
I wrote:

I’m in agreement with Justin that, on my understanding of what rationality is, neither concept could apply. I can give some fundamental reasons why this is so if you like.


Why cannot God be rational?

First, we need a proper understanding of what rationality is. Rationality is not just a synonym for “understandable”; the two concepts have very distinct meanings. In fact, understandability presupposes rationality. Besides, there is no reason to multiply concepts meaning the same thing unnecessarily.

Rationality is the commitment to reason as one’s only means of acquiring and validating knowledge, and as his only guide to chosen action. By contrast, irrationality is the reliance on something other than reason (e.g., emotions, astrology, palm-reading, tea leaves, faith in invisible magic beings, etc.) to acquire and/or validate knowledge and guide his choices and actions. In general, rationality is compliance with reason, and irrationality is non-compliance with reason. If you look up ‘rational’ in the dictionary, even here you will find a close connection with reason.

Now reason is the faculty which identifies and integrates perceptual input. This faculty is made possible by the ability to form concepts from perceptual input (and higher concepts from the initial concepts formed on the basis of perceptual input).

It should not be difficult to recognize from this why man needs rationality. He needs rationality because he needs reason. And he needs reason because he needs knowledge in order to live, and reason is how he gets that knowledge. If he does not get the knowledge he needs to live, man will die. Like any living organism, man faces a fundamental alternative: life or death. So if man wants to live, he has no choice but to employ his faculty of reason.

When it comes to the Christian god, however, we have a much different story. The concept of rationality would not apply since the concept of reason could not apply. Take for example the claim that the Christian god is omniscient. It is all-knowing, possessing all knowledge. There’s nothing this god doesn’t know, so we are told. Would it make sense to say such a being is “rational”? Well, again, if rationality is a commitment to reason as one’s only means of acquiring and validating knowledge and his only guide to chosen actions, then clearly it wouldn’t make sense. An omniscient being would have no use for a means of acquiring and validating knowledge, since it is said to already possess all knowledge. There would be no knowledge for it to acquire or validate. Essentially, such a being could not learn. So there’d be no need for it to be committed to reason as its only means of acquiring and validating knowledge, for it already knows everything. To call such a being “rational” in this case would be to say it is committed to something it couldn’t possibly need. So it would be a stolen concept at this point.

Also, since the Christian god is said to be non-physical and bodiless, it wouldn’t have any sense organs. It wouldn’t have eyes, ears, a tongue, a nose, skin. It wouldn’t have nerve cells, a spine (yes, the Christian god is spineless), or a brain (yes, it’s brainless, too). Because it lacks sense organs, a nervous system and a brain, it would not have awareness via senses. Consequently, it would not have perceptual input from external stimuli, such as when we see an apple, a grove of trees, a baby, a city skyline. Consequently, it would have no perceptual input to identify and integrate. This is yet another reason why the Christian god would have no use for reason, and consequently no need to be committed to reason (i.e., rationality). So again, the theist has another stolen concept on his hands when he claims that his god is “rational.”

Another point is that, because the Christian god is said to be omniscient, it would not possess its knowledge in the form of concepts. I have already given my argument for this conclusion here. The point here is that, since reason is a conceptual process, a being which would not have its knowledge in the form of concepts would have no use for it. So to call such a being “rational” is, again, to say that it is committed to something it would have no use for and could not need. So here we have a third count of the fallacy of the stolen concept.

A final point is that, because the Christian god is said to be eternal, indestructible, omnipotent, etc., it would have no need or use for a guide for its choices and actions. Unlike man, who faces a fundamental alternative and can die if he acts on bad choices, the Christian god could do anything, and no harm would come to it. In fact, it could sit idle for all eternity, performing utterly no actions whatsoever, and it would still continue on as what it is just fine.

So these are some reasons why I would say that neither the concept ‘rational’ nor ‘irrational’ would apply to the Christian god. It would be, like a rock on a hillside or an asteroid in the cold of space, wholly arational, and for reasons which are not dissimilar: like the Christian god, rocks and asteroids have neither need nor use for a faculty for acquiring and validating knowledge, nor do they have either need or use for a guide to action. So consequently, they would have no need or use for committing themselves to such a faculty or guide.

by Dawson Bethrick

Thoughts on Recent Comments by Vytautas

Recent comments by Vytautas, an occasional visitor to my blog, prompted some questions on my part, and he was kind enough to offer a reply. I haven’t posted a blog in a while, so I thought I would take this occasion to kill two birds with one stone.

I wrote:

When you say that you disagree in your initial point, are you saying that facts are not objective for anyone?


Facts are objective for the Christian view as well any other view.

An examination of the Christian worldview does not bear this out, as I have shown. Did you read my blog? Perhaps we’re operating on two different understandings of objectivity. I have explained what I mean by objectivity in my blog. Did you have difficulty understanding it, or do you have a different understanding of what objectivity is that you can provide?

I asked:

Is this itself a fact?


No, because a statement about the facts in general is not a statement about something objective, since it is subjective.

I’m not sure I follow this. When you say that “because a statement about facts in general is not a statement about something objective,” are you saying that facts in general are not objective? Or are you saying that statements about facts cannot be objective?

I wrote:

And if so, is it not itself an objective fact – i.e., a fact that is impervious to conscious intentions? What is the alternative to objectivity in your view, if not some form of subjectivism?


We can know things objectively as well as subjectively.

I know that we can know things objectively. Would “God” be something you “know” subjectively?


Why are there only facts and not statements about the facts?

I think there are statements about facts.

I asked:

Also, when you say that “sense objects are able to affect the mind,” what specifically do you mean by this, and why would you conclude from this that facts are not objective?


A sense objects are identified by the senses, and the mind passively takes in information about the object. The passive act of apprehending an object affects the mind, but if the mind does not sense the object, then the object cannot be identified. I deny that facts are not objective.

I’m still not clear on what you mean by objects “affecting” the mind. Now it is true that if a mind does not perceive an object, it will not identify that object. However, sense objects are identified, not by the senses, but by the faculty of reason (specifically through conceptual integration). This is not a passive process. Conceptual integration is an active process. Perception is also an active process, but unlike conceptual integration, perception is not a *volitional* process, it is physiological, automatic. Both are active processes. What they do not do is *create* or *alter* the objects involved. The objects remain what they are regardless of who perceives them, how often they are perceived, what one calls them, or how one might miscategorize them. That’s the primacy of existence: the objects of consciousness exist and are what they are independent of conscious activity. In the case of a god, however, whose will is said to possess the power to create objects “ex nihilo” (i.e., not from materials which already exist) and alter them according to its preferences and wishes, the primacy of existence does not hold. On the contrary, what we have here is the primacy of consciousness: objects exist and are what the ruling consciousness wants them to be. On this view, existence conforms to consciousness. It is a complete reversal of the primacy of existence. The outcome from such a view is that facts could not be objective, since they conform to the stipulations of a subject which allegedly has power to bring them into existence and reshape them at will. The Van Til quote which I gave in my blog confirms precisely this.

I wrote:

How does that follow? It sounds like you’re suggesting that the mind functions optimally if there are no sense objects to begin with to “affect the mind.” Anyway, some clarity on what you were trying to say here would be helpful, because as it stands now it’s vague and unsubstantial.


A mind has an intellect and a will. The intellect passively takes in information of the sense object, but the will must operate on the sense data to make it understandable.

Again, I do not think that the mind passively takes in information, since perception (the means by which we have awareness of objects existing independent of us) is an active process. You seem to agree that the mind does volitionally process that information, but when you say that “the will must operate on the sense data to make it understandable,” what specifically do you mean here? What operation does the will perform on the sense data?


If the facts are not objective, then all of reality as we perceive it would be subjective.

Ultimately this is the nature of reality as Christianity would have us believe, since it is a creation of consciousness and everything within it conforms to someone’s will. You can’t get more subjective than that.

I asked:

When you say that “God does not change [the fact that JF Kennedy died Nov. 22, 1963] in space-time because he [planned] this since the foundations of the world,” specifically which fact are you talking about that your god "does not change"? That JFK is dead? Or that he died on a specific date?


It is the fact that the assassination happened in history. The event is not repeatable because it all ready happened. Even if JFK rose from the dead, that fact would be a different from the historical fact. So the same historical event cannot happen twice.

Well, if you say so. I’ve heard other Christians make conflicting intimations as they seem to grant wider latitude to the notion of “God’s sovereignty,” sometimes even making much of the claim that the Christian god exists “out of time.” Indeed, if I believed in an omnipotent being which is supposed to have created the whole universe and is said to rule over everything within it with a sovereign will, I don’t know why I would believe that it could not change history once it’s been made. What would prevent it from doing this?

I asked:

You claim that “only an irrational god” would change whichever fact is in question here, but why?


It is because an irrational god would change its plan when it is carried out.

Who said anything about changing a plan? Maybe the plan included resurrecting JFK, revising the date of his assassination, or deleting it from history, all along. I see no reason why a change of plan would be needed for any of these options. It would be very easy for an omnipotent god to do this, I would think. It could also make it “understandable,” at the very least to itself, thus satisfying your criterion of rationality (see below). It would also be very easy to claim that it had planned such things from the very beginning.


An irrational god does not plan everything in advance so it does not know everything in advance.

I’m not sure why. Below you say that “irrational” means “not understandable,” but I don’t see anything “not understandable” about the situation you describe here. In fact, just by your description of it, I have understood it. There’s nothing “not understandable” about not planning everything in advance or not knowing everything in advance.

I wrote:

It seems that you would consider anything your god plans and does “rational,” even if it involved resurrecting JFK or revising the date on which he was assassinated.


God is rational because he plans out history, but an irrational god is captive
to his creation.

I’m trying to integrate this with how you defined ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ below. So, to go by your definition, you’re saying that “God is [understandable] because he plans out history, but a [not understandable] god is captive to his creation.” Is that what you meant to say? I’m wondering how “rational” your position is, because the more you try to explain it, the harder and harder it is becoming to understand.


We only know history after the fact. So we don’t know if God will resurrect JFK, but he will not revise the date on which he was assassinated because then God would be inconstant with what he has decreed.

If the Christian god had planned to revise the date on which JFK was assassinated, it wouldn’t be “inconstant with what he has decreed.” And unless you are the Christian god, you wouldn’t have full knowledge of what it has decreed. Given Christianity’s supernaturalism and its all-powerful, sovereign deity, there’s no reason why it should be supposed impossible that JFK was originally assassinated in 1976 and the Christian god revised the date back to 1963. We wouldn’t know either way unless your god wanted us to know. It seems quite unrealistic, on these presuppositions, for a finite, fallible and non-omniscient creature to say what an infinite, infallible, omniscient and omnipotent deity can or cannot do.

I asked:

Surely you believe that your god is capable of performing both alterations, no?


I deny that God is capable of performing both alterations, since it would make him irrational.

And according to what you say below, “irrational” is, on your view, apparently just a synonym for “not understandable.” It’s not at all clear why performing one of the alterations mentioned above would preserve your god’s understandability, while performing the other (or both) wouldn’t.

I asked:

And if you believed your god had a purpose for resurrecting JFK or changing the date on which he was assassinated, would you call that “irrational”?



This is a puzzling answer, given your above points. Above you just got through saying that you “deny that God is capable of performing both alterations, since it would make him irrational,” but now you seem to say that having a reason for doing one or the other would not be irrational. You’re losing me.

I wrote:

Justin gave some brief comments on why it’s quizzical at best to ascribe rationality or irrationality to a god’s behavior. I’m wondering if you could clarify what you were trying to say, and what you mean by “rational” and “irrational”.


’Rational’ means understandable. And ‘irrational’ means not understandable.

I’ve never seen these definitions for these terms before. Is this from the bible? I would say that the doctrine of the trinity would make the Christian god irrational on this definition of ‘irrational’, since the doctrine of the trinity makes it utterly beyond comprehension. Various other Christian doctrines make Christianity as a worldview irrational on this conception of it. For instance, the doctrine of prayer. Jesus is portrayed repeatedly in the gospels telling believers to ask what they want and they’ll get it, because Jesus himself is faithful. But there always seems to be some reason why this fails. (See for instance here.) That’s “not understandable” given the promises we find attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. There’s also the doctrine of the Christian god’s glory. It already is said to possess all glory, but believers are supposed to “give God the glory” as well. Van Til referred to this as “the full bucket problem,” and did not have any clear (“understandable”) answer to it. I could go on, but by now you should see my point.

Also, on this definition of ‘rational’, I – an atheist, mind you – am rational, because I am understandable (sufficiently so for you to carry on a discussion with me). My worldview, because it is understandable (I certainly understand it), is also rational. But Christian apologists often insist that atheism is irrational (apparently, “not understandable”), even though I understand it, and that a worldview which rejects Christian theism cannot be rational (even though I understand my worldview, which is non-Christian and non-theistic).


God is rational in relation to himself, but God is incomprehensible to man, so that he must reveal himself to man, if we are to know something about God.

I’m confident that one could say such things about anything he has imagined.

by Dawson Bethrick