Friday, May 15, 2009

Non-Cognitivism or Metaphysical Primacy: What's the Better Strategy?

In the comments section of my blog ”Ultimate Questions”, Madmax asked:

Your method of challenging theistic apologetics is to expose the theist's commitment to metaphysical subjectivism. This is a powerful approach because it shows the theist's contradictions for what they are. But I wonder if Rand's argument that 'God' isn't even a valid concept isn't a more devastating approach… Rand's argument was, in essence, her own version of the argument on non-cognitivism (or the meaningless of religious discourse) based on her theory of concept formation.

This is a good question, though there are some points to consider. But to give a direct answer to this question, my view is that the contention that “God” is not a valid concept is really a side issue, one which is philosophically subordinate to the issue of metaphysical primacy and consequently the charge that theism is at its root committed to metaphysical subjectivism. I hold this position because, regardless of whether or not “God” is a legitimate concept or not, the underlying problem with god-belief is its commitment to metaphysical subjectivism, as I have argued here. In fact, a theist could rightly admit that “God” is not, on his view, supposed to be a concept in the first place. In such a case, pointing out that “God” is not a valid concept would probably have little debating value. But the underlying issue still remains the distinction between the objects of one’s consciousness, and the conscious activity by which one identifies or refers to those objects, or whether or not the activity of consciousness has been confused with or superimposed on the objects of one’s consciousness. To understand this, let’s review the pertinent facts.

In the case of the fact that “God” isn’t a valid concept, here’s what Rand had to say:

Prof. D: … And what common features of particulars are retained in order to get the concept “God” –

AR: I would have to refer you to a brief passage about invalid concepts [page 49]. This is precisely one, if not the essential one, of the epistemological objections to the concept “God.” It is not a concept. At best, one could say it is a concept in the sense in which a dramatist uses concepts to create a character. It is an isolation of actual characteristics of man combined with the projection of impossible, irrational characteristics which do not arise from reawlity – such as omnipotence and omniscience.

Besides, God isn’t even supposed to be a concept: he is sui generis, so that nothing relevant to man or the rest of nature is supposed, by the proponents of that viewpoint, to apply to God. A concept has to involve two or more similar concretes, and there is nothing like God. He is supposed to be unique. Therefore, by their own terms of setting up the problem, they have taken God out of the conceptual realm. An quite properly, because he is out of reality. (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 148)

I’m not sure if this is the passage which Madmax had in mind when he mentions “Rand’s argument that ‘God’ isn’t even a valid concept,” but this is what came to mind when I read his statement. If he had something else specifically in mind, I’d like to know what it is.

So given this, one can rightly point out that “God” is not a valid concept, but the theist – if he’s aware of these distinctions – could easily agree and say that “God” is a proper name rather than a concept integrating two or more similar concretes. This of course does not stop theists from treating “God” as a concept – in fact, many times apologists treat their god as if it were a concept. Consider the following statement:

The basic structure of Christianity – creation, fall, redemptive revelation, redemption, and final judgment – can be directly deduced from the concept of an absolute God… (Mike Warren, Christian Civilization is the Only Civilization – In a Sense, Of Course)

Concepts are mental phenomena; they are psychological. They are the form in which the human mind economizes the vast array of perceptions one experiences in his conscious life. Statements like “the concept of an absolute God” may actually constitute an unwitting admission that one’s object of worship is all in the mind, like the things one imagines.

Of course, theists will resist this interpretation of their statements, and if called on it will likely insist that their god is not just a concept. I’m reminded of the following exchange between George H. Smith and Greg Bahnsen in their radio debate. Smith asks Bahnsen an important question:

Smith: “Is God an abstraction, Greg?”

Bahnsen: “Uh no, God is a personal, non-physical being.”

Smith: “Non-physical? Could you be more specific? I mean, non-existence is non-physical as well. So how do we distinguish God from non-existence?”

Bahnsen: “Well, obviously, you uh distinguish God, a non-physical being, from say the concept of love, or say the concept of number, or the laws of physics or the laws of logic, you distinguish them according to their characteristics. God is a person, makes choices, and does things. Numbers do not.”

Here Bahnsen is explicitly asked to address the question of whether or not “God” is an abstraction. Bahnsen’s response is “Uh no” in this case. But it seems difficult for Christian apologists to avoid treating their god conceptually, i.e., as if it were a concept. For instance, in his book Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, Bahnsen makes the following statement:

It should be particularly noted, therefore, that only a system of philosophy that takes the concept of an absolute God seriously can really be said to be employing a transcendental method… The opponent of Christianity will long ago have noticed that we are frankly prejudiced, and that the whole position is "biblicistic." On the other hand, some fundamentalists may have feared that we have been trying to build up a sort of Christian philosophy without the Bible. Now we may say that if such be the case, the opponent of Christianity has sensed the matter correctly. The position we have briefly sought to outline is frankly taken from the Bible. And this applies especially to the central concept of the whole position, viz., the concept of an absolute God. Nowhere else in human literature, we believe, is the concept of an absolute God presented.,, It thus appears that we must take the Bible, its conception of sin, its conception of Christ, and its conception of God and all that is involved in these concepts together, or take none of them. (p. 517; italics original)

Other examples can be produced, but this one passage should be sufficient to show how casually Bahnsen treats his god as if it were in fact conceptual in nature, in spite of his answer to Smith when explicitly called upon the matter. Of course, I raise this point because on my view, concepts are abstractions, since concepts are formed by a process of abstracting from specific objects (i.e., from objects possessing specific measurements which are omitted – or “despecified” as Porter puts it – in the process of forming concepts). My view is that theists implicitly tend to treat their god as something conceptual because it is ultimately psychological, specifically rooted in the believer’s imagination. This would explain the believer’s willingness to flip back and forth between treating his god as something conceptual on the one hand, and as something concrete and specific on the other.

Either way, though, there is a problem in so far as Objectivism is concerned. And this is not a problem which the theist can simply dismiss as internal to Objectivism, since the problem is rooted in the manner in which the human mind works, and everyone must work with his mind. Whether “God” is supposed to be a concept or a proper name, it is being used as a mental symbol to refer to something that is supposed to be extra-mental, something supposedly existing independent of the mind of the believer. It’s supposed to refer to something which exists objectively, rather than to a figment of the believer’s imagination. So right here the theist is employing the primacy of existence whether he realizes it or not, and in so doing he is in a sense “borrowing” from a non-Christian metaphysical position.

Given these facts, certain questions come up which need to be contended with, whether or not one is an Objectivist. For instance, to what specifically is this mental symbol supposed to refer? The theist will of course say it refers to a supernatural conscious being which has all sorts of various attributes and accomplishments, such as (in the case of attributes) omniscience, infallibility, absolute sovereignty, infiniteness, etc., and (in the case of accomplishments) the creation of the universe, the atonement for sins, etc. So the word “God” (whether concept or proper name) is supposed to refer to or denote this supernatural thing which is said to exist independent of any human being’s consciousness.

The question then becomes: by what means does the theist have awareness of this supernatural being? One issue needs to be clarified at this point: does he claim to be aware of this supernatural being directly? Or, does he just “know of” it by means of inference from other things of which he has direct awareness? It’s not always clear which position a particular theist holds given certain statements he may make, or his treatment of the matter. Some seem to act as if they have direct awareness of their god, as you and I have direct awareness of objects we perceive with our senses. If the theist says he has direct awareness of his god, by what means does he have this direct awareness? Presumably it cannot be by means of sense perception, since the word “God” is supposed to refer to something imperceptible to human beings: it’s invisible, it’s immaterial, we cannot see it, we cannot touch it, we cannot hear it (though various biblical passages, particularly in the Old Testament suggest that some individuals, such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, etc, did have the ability or opportunity to see this god or hear its voice). The point here is that, if we cannot have direct awareness of this supernatural being by means of sense perception (and descriptions of the Christian god preclude this ability), then by what means does the believer have direct awareness of it (if he claims to have such awareness of his god)? This is a question for the believer to answer. Whatever answer he gives, supposing he sticks with the position that he has direct awareness of his god, we should inquire as to how we can distinguish the means which he proposes from his imagination, and how we can reliably distinguish between what he calls “God” and what he may merely be imagining. This is a common course of inquiry in my writings, and so far I’ve not seen any good answers to it from theists. It should be pointed out at this point, in the interest of answering Madmax’s question, that this leads back to the issue of metaphysical subjectivism: is the theist confusing the contents of his consciousness (some of which may have an imaginative basis and therefore subjective in nature) with what actually exists, with reality?

The alternative to having direct awareness of this alleged supernatural being, would be to infer its existence from other things of which one has direct awareness. This leads us to argumentation. When individuals like William Lane Craig present arguments which are intended to conclude that a god exists, they are implicitly acknowledging that we do not have direct awareness of what they call “God,” that we need to infer its existence by some course of reasoning, by implication of certain premises which they put forward and endorse (e.g., the universe is not eternal and needed a cause, or the world exhibits design and therefore there must have been a designer, etc.). An argument of course consists of premises which are supposed to support a conclusion. So at this point it’s fair game to ask the believer what his starting point is. Some seem to think that “God” is their starting point. But this would render any argument intended to conclude that a god exists viciously circular; it would beg the question, since the existence of their god is admittedly assumed from the very beginning. That takes us back to the previous alternative: does the believer claim to have direct awareness of what he calls “God”? If the believer identifies something other than his god as his starting point, what is it, and how does he traverse from what he identifies as his starting point to the conclusion that his god exists? At this point, we can raise the issue of metaphysical primacy, and ask if he is aware that there is a proper relationship between consciousness and its objects, and whether or not everything he is telling us is consistent with the inescapable implication present in any affirmation of a truth that the objects of consciousness exist independent of consciousness. After all, to say “God exists,” is to make a statement about reality which presumably obtains independent of the speaker’s wishes, preferences, imagination, ignorance, etc. So again the issue of metaphysical primacy is in play here. How does the theist address it? Is his assumption of the primacy of existence (such as when he makes a statement about reality which is not supposed to reflect anyone’s wishing or preferences about the state of affairs it references) consistent with his god-belief claims? I don’t think it is.

Madmax asked:

Do you think it is better to show that the god-concept is a meaningless term that literally refers to nothing (as no positive attributes can *ever* be attached to it) first and then get into the argument from the primacy of existence? Or do you think that the fundamental argument against theism is to establish the primacy of existence first?

Again, this is a good question. Keeping the pointers given above in mind, I still think that focusing on the issue of metaphysical primacy is equivalent to “going for the jugular” in examining theistic claims. Whether or not “God” is a concept, a proper name, or paramount to meaningless grunting, the issue at hand ultimately reduces to the relationship between consciousness and its objects, any way you slice it.

But this does not mean that non-cognitivism is off limits by any means. If a theist invokes the word “God,” it’s certainly valid to ask what it is supposed to denote. If the theist objects to this, it may be that he’s trying to hide something. Why else would he have a problem with this? He could take the Reformed route and claim that we already know his god, but this would simply be another claim for him to validate. Now he not only has to validate his claim that a god exists, he now has to validate the claim that everyone knows his god. If the theist has a hard time explaining what the word “God” refers to, this alone would seem to indicate a problem for the claim that everyone knows his god.

My only point is that such discussions are apt to delay getting to the more fundamental issue, which is the issue of metaphysical primacy. It should be borne in mind that the primacy of existence is the root of the concept of objectivity, and any claim about reality attempts to draw on the concept of objectivity as the proper orientation between consciousness and the universe of objects, whether legitimately (as in the case of mundane claims about the world, such as “human beings exist” or “there’s a sale at Penny’s”) or illicitly (such as god-belief claims).

To recap, the basic questions you might pose to theists include the following:

1) To what is the word “God” supposed to refer?

2) Does the theist claim to be directly aware of what he calls “God”? If so, can he identify the means by which he thinks he has direct awareness of what he calls “God”? If not, then question 3) below:

3) Does the theist claim to infer its existence from something else of which he has direct awareness? If so, what is this something else of which he has direct awareness and from which he has inferred the existence of his god?

4) If the theist neither has direct awareness of his god nor claims to have inferred its existence from something else of which he does have direct awareness, then can he identify some alternative to these as the means by which he has knowledge of his god? (E.g., did he just read about it in a storybook?)

5) In regard to whatever answer the theist gives to any of these questions, what do his answers assume to be the proper orientation his consciousness and the objects of his awareness? Does he assume that his claims are true because he wishes that they are true? Or that he believes them to be true? Or does he claim to believe them because he thinks they are true independent of what he wishes and believes? If this latter position is the case, how does he explain this in light of the specifics of his god-belief claims, which portray the universe of objects as conforming to the dictates of a supernatural consciousness?

Of course, if a non-believer raises the criticism of non-cognitivism, the theist might reply by challenging the non-believer to “account for” cognition to begin with? Of course, there’s nothing to fear in such challenges if one is armed with the primacy of existence and a good theory of concepts, both of which Objectivism supplies. But I would see this as an attempt to deflect the discussion away from the criticism rather than to answer it.

Madmax wrote:

I ask because it seems to me that the epistemological argument against the god-concept itself might be a better place to start before getting to the metaphysical arguments that deal with the subject-object relationship.

While I see objection to posing questions to theists about the meaning of the word “God,” I’m not sure it’s the case that the epistemological argument against the notion of a god is a better place to start before raising the issue of metaphysical primacy, i.e., the proper orientation in the subject-object relationship. Perhaps there are reasons which recommend this sequence of criticisms which I’m not presently aware of. The subject-object relationship is a precondition to any epistemological concerns, since epistemology has to do with how we know things, and this presupposes awareness of objects to begin with. Questions about the proper orientation between a subject and its objects are more fundamental than the intricacies of epistemological inquiries of this nature. It would seem to me that delving into complicated epistemological issues may leave vital metaphysical ground untilled, perhaps even ceded in the mind of the believer. And in the case of presuppositional apologists, who think the dispute between believers and non-believers rests in one’s “presuppositions,” it seems to me that the wisest strategy would be to focus on the believer’s starting points. I know mine, and I would argue that my starting points would have to be true even for the believer to imagine that his god exists, let alone claim or believe it exists (see for instance my blog Theism and Its Piggyback Starting Point). It is deliciously ironic that apologists who call themselves “Presuppositionalists” seem most unprepared when it comes to discussions about starting points, or “ultimate questions.” In that case, Chris Bolt still has not addressed my “ultimate questions” which I posed to him in early April.

Madmax asked:

Lastly, have you ever heard of any "good" objections to the non-cognitivism argument?

None that I can think of. In fact, I’m not aware of any good objections from theists to any worthy criticisms of theism to begin with. I tend to see from theists a lot of red herrings raises against criticisms of theistic beliefs, such as in the form of arbitrary distinctions. Arbitrary distinctions, such as the Calvinist assertion of proximate vs. ultimate causes in order to outrun theism’s inherent determinism, are often introduced in order, not only to avoid dealing with the implications of a particular theistic position, but also to cast the objector as confused or careless. Another example that comes to mind gives the Christian god two different wills, e.g., “God’s decretive will” vs. “God’s preceptive will.” Divisions of this nature are required, not because they are something one discovers in the world, but because a contradiction inherent in theism needs to be smoothed over.

I’m not sure if this will satisfy Madmax’s questions. But hopefully it will inspire further discussion, which is why I am responding to his questions in a separate post.

by Dawson Bethrick


madmax said...


You have provided another awesome answer to some of my questions. I'm overwhelmed by your response and entirely grateful. You gave such well reasoned and articulate arguments that I am going to have to read it a few times to fully digest it. But here are some preliminary thoughts.

First, yes the ITOE page 148 quote is exactly the one I was thinking of. I have read that passage so many times the page is falling out from my copy of the book! After reading it not too long ago I thought that perhaps we were letting the theists off the hook by even allowing them to pretend that the word 'god' referred to something, let alone referred to an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent god that created and sustains the universe, and then let them draw all kinds of political and social conclusions from that belief; ie sin exists and must be regulated for the good of society therefore no gay marriage, abortion, etc. Or Darwin was a fraud and evolution must be "guided" so Creationism is valid, on and on ad nauseum. I thought that maybe by stressing that the term god was literally nonsense we could "cut them off at the root" so to speak.

But having now read your response I agree that non-cognitivism should not be the fundamental argument; ie the argument that "goes for the jugular." On this subject I like this quote from your post:

"The subject-object relationship is a precondition to any epistemological concerns, since epistemology has to do with how we know things, and this presupposes awareness of objects to begin with. Questions about the proper orientation between a subject and its objects are more fundamental than the intricacies of epistemological inquiries of this nature."

Now that I think of it, this is correct and, further, it rings true from my experience with debating theists. Even if you try to point out that the term 'god' is meaningless they will still assert that the world gives us evidence that "points to" this transcendent, supernatural being. They still think god can be inferred from what we see. So the rational atheist will still have to demonstrate that theism is metaphysical subjectivism and that metaphysical subjectivism is a position that relies on stolen concepts and pilfering from the primacy of existence. Non-cognitivism is a solid anti-theist polemic but it can not stand on its own. The primacy of existence argument allows no wiggle room for theists and therefore it is not only the ultimate "god-killer" but it is also (and more importantly) the foundation of a rational philosophy.

Here are some other thoughts:

* "The question then becomes: by what means does the theist have awareness of this supernatural being?" This is an excellent question to ask theists. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. So many times I have read theist say that they directly sense god's presence by "rational intuition." Pressing them on what this means and how they can distinguish between this and imagination is, I feel, a powerful polemical tool.

* Regarding the use of language in relation to the god concept, I know that you are a big fan of Edmund Cohen's book 'The Mind Of The Bible Believer.' In that book, Cohen uses the term "logocide" to refer to how Christians steel terms and give them uses that are exactly the opposite of their real meaning. For example "everlasting life" really refers to death, "truth" has no relation to facts, "justice" is based on arbitrary divine whim, etc. Well this applies to all the attributes used to describe god. God is "love", god is "truth", god is "wisdom", even god is "consciousness" all take legitimate terms and apply them in a context where they have no meaning. That *is* pure logocide.

* You write: "My view is that theists implicitly tend to treat their god as something conceptual because it is ultimately psychological, specifically rooted in the believer’s imagination." This really is an excellent point. Its a point that outside of you and Cohen, I haven't seen made elsewhere. Namely that theism is at root the failure to distinguish between imagination and facts. As Ayn Rand once said: "An imagination not grounded in reality is a nightmare."

Since this comment is already long enough, I'll end here. But let me once again thank you Dawson and say that yours is the best blog of its subject matter on the interwebs.


Justin Hall said...

How Do I Know What I Know?

How do I decide if what I think is real, or just my opinion?
FIRST PRINCIPLES are the foundation of LOGIC.

Being Is (B is) = The principle of Existence.

Being Is Being (B is B) = The principle of Identity.

Being Is not Nonbeing (B is Not Non B) = The P. of Noncontradiction.

Either Being or Nonbeing (Either B or non B) = The Excluded Middle.

Nonbeing Cannot Cause Being (Non-B>B) The Principle of Causality.

Contingent Being Can't Cause Contingent Being (Bc>Bc) Dependency.

Only Necessary Being Can Cause a Contingent Being (Bn->Bc) = The Positive Principle of Modality.

Necessary Being Cannot Cause a Necessary Being (Bn>Bn) = The Negative Principle of Modality.

Every Contingent Being is Caused by a Necessary Being (Bn->Bc) = The Principle of Existential Causality.

Necessary Being exists = Existential Necessity (Bn exists).

Contingent being exists = Existential Contingency. (Bc exists).

The Necessary Being is similar to the similar contingent being it causes = The Principle of Analogy (Bn-similar->Bc)

REVIEW: 1) I am here, 2) I am me, 3) I really exist, 4) I am not you, 5) I was caused, 6) I couldn't cause myself, 7) something is greater than me, 8) there is only one original, 9) everything was caused, 10) there is a first cause, 11) the first cause exists, 12) I'm similar to what caused me.

Renaissance thinks that these First Principles help us logically evaluate thoughts about God and ourselves.

How can I make sense of who I am?

FIRST PRINCIPLES are the foundation of LOGIC.

I know that I exist. I am here. (Numbers are coded to Logic above. #1)

I didn't make myself. (#11)

Nothing cannot cause something. (#5)

Only something prior to me could bring me here. (#7)

Therefore, I was caused to exist by something other than me (#1-4)

I am a rational, emotional and spiritual person.

Therefore, the one prior to me must also be rational, emotional and spiritual since we are similar (#12)

The Necessary Being is essential and can't be unnecessary (#3)

Therefore, a Necessary Being exists.

The Necessary Being is eternal, uncaused and unchanging.

Therefore one infinite being exits. (Infinity can't be multiple.)

Such a Being is appropriately called God.

Therefore, the theistic God exists.

renaissance: connection, meaning.

I realize this is off topic somewhat, however I had this arguement offered and I was wondering how you would have answered it. I attacked on the arbitrary distinction between necessary and contingent being. Sense they state existence is identity in there opening if not in so many words they left the door open for that line of attack. A being either exists or it does not, if it exists then it has identity and that will determine its nature plain and simple. No need to false alternatives. And what is an necessary being anyway. The individual I was arguing with identified it in terms of what it was not, so I asked how he distinguished that from what he may be imagining. The real sticking point was I insisted on he define his terms. Both contingent and necessary, and argue that a contingent being could not cause a contingent being, as I saw this to be a major flaw.

Unknown said...

I'm just curious, was this person a deist?

"I am a rational, emotional and spiritual person.

Therefore, the one prior to me must also be rational, emotional and spiritual since we are similar..."

Is an amoeba rational, emotional, or "spiritual"? I too am interested in Mr. Bethrick's view on this.

Justin Hall said...

Actually he described himself as a follower of Jesus, in the most non denominational sense. However it really does not matter. The real issue is and has been between the metaphysics of subjective vs objectivsim. The details of differing subjective views really don't matter. This line of thought is just another attack on our mental faculties no matter how benign it may appear. What I desire is to see how Mr Bethrick tears it up so that I can compare. I know this is nonsense and I suspect it is in the false dichotomy of necessary vs contingent, I am just finding it hard to reason out.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Justin,

Thanks for bringing this argument to my attention. It is not unusual (I've seen many like it before), but your questions about it were good and I decided to post a specific response to it on my blog here:

The "Necessary Being" vs. "Contingent Being" ArgumentHopefully you will find some value in my response.

I do entirely agree with you when you say that "the details of differing subjective views really don't matter," as differing subjective views only differ in terms of non-essentials rather than in terms of fundamentals. What they share in common - namely the assumption of the primacy of consciousness - is the essential distinguishing factor, and that alone is sufficient for us to reject it. But identifying this flaw may not always be so easy. I'm hoping my response to the argument you posted will be enlightening.