Monday, June 29, 2009

Does Logic Presuppose the Christian God? Part I: Examining the Presuppositionalist Viewpoint

Anyone who is at all familiar with presuppositionalist apologetics has heard it before: no one can “account for” the laws of logic without “presupposing” the existence of the Christian god. For instance, in his debate with the atheist Dr. Gordon Stein, Christian apologist Greg Bahnsen exclaims:

The atheist world view is irrational and cannot consistently provide the preconditions of intelligible experience, science, logic, or morality. The atheist world view cannot allow for laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, the ability for the mind to understand the world, and moral absolutes.

If we look beyond Bahnsen’s tendentious habit of referring to something he calls “the atheist worldview” (as if there were a single worldview to which all atheists ascribe, which is simply not true), we see that the gist of Bahnsen’s point here is consistent with his claim that “logic, the laws of nature, and the laws of morality make no sense unless God is presupposed” (John Frame, Bahnsen at the Stein Debate). While it is noteworthy how much power such a position grants to mere human conscious activity (e.g., simply presupposing - a conscious action – the existence of the Christian god is sufficient to “make sense” of “logic, the laws of nature, and the laws of morality”; one presumably only needs to assume the existence of god, not study logic, nature and morality, to understand these), much ink has been spilled by Christian apologists repeating such claims. But simply repeating these claims is not the same as proving their assumed truth, and an examination of presuppositional treatments of the case for logic presupposing the Christian god and various statements made in the literature, may reveal why uncritical repetition of such claims is preferred to full-blown analysis of the relevant issues.

In the present paper I will examine statements made by presuppositionalists on behalf of their claim that logic somehow presupposes the existence of the Christian god, and in a follow-up entry (Part II) I will provide several key reasons why logic does not and cannot presuppose any gods (Christian or otherwise) or have any fundamental association with the mystical teachings of any religion (including Christianity).

Obviously presuppositionalists think that logic has some important relationship to the Christian god. But getting a clear understanding of just what this relationship is supposed to be, is not very easy. First of all, it is noteworthy to point out that, while Christians claim that everything which exists other than their god was created by their god, presuppositionalists typically resist saying that their god created logic. This is probably because such a position would be too overtly subjective for PR purposes, and too problematic to defend. But in spite of such reservations, they are anxious to associate logic fundamentally with their god, as if logic could not exist unless their god also exists. Consider the following statement, again from Greg Bahnsen:

We are not saying God created the laws of logic by His volitional self-determination. Were this so, then He could alter or discard them as well... Rather, we are saying that the laws of logic reflect His nature, the way He is in Himself. They are, therefore, eternal expressions of the unchanging character of God (Numb. 23:19; Mal. 3:6; James 1:17). God’s unchanging character is just that, unchanging. Therefore the laws of logic (which reflect that character) are unchanging and unchangeable, in that God “cannot deny Himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). (Pushing the Antithesis: The Apologetic Methodology of Greg L. Bahnsen, p. 210)

Bahnsen’s chief concern here in regard to the nature of the laws of logic itself, is that they are “unchanging and unchangeable.” The law of identity, for instance, is not something one can bend out of shape to suit illegitimate purposes, and begging the question will always be a fallacy, here and everywhere. This “unchanging and unchangeable” nature of the laws of logic presumably requires something behind them which is also “unchanging and unchangeable,” and for Bahnsen that could only be the Christian god: the Christian god is supposed to be unchanging – Bahnsen cites Mal. 3:6 (“For I, the LORD, do not change”) as support – and (in some way whose mechanics do not seem to be explained) “the laws of logic reflect” the unchanging nature of this deity. Indeed, for Bahnsen, the laws of logic are “eternal expressions of the unchanging character of God.”

Now it seems to me that anyone can imagine an invisible magic being, claim that its nature does not change, and insist that the laws of logic “reflect” its unchanging nature. I could, for example, fantasize that the laws of logic reflect the nature of Blarko the Wonderbeing, whose nature is "unchanging and unchangeable." Of course, this would be mere fantasy at this point, completely baseless, and utterly at odds with reality. And while it seems that presuppositionalists provide essentially nothing better than this, they insist that their god is not imaginary and that logic in fact requires (“demands” as one apologist puts it) the existence of an “immaterial” being which could only be the Christian god. Unfortunately, however, the apologists have given no substantial reason to suppose that their god is something other than a fantasy. Instead of TAG – i.e., the “transcendental argument for the existence of God” – apologists have in fact served up a rendition of FAG - i.e., the fantastical assertion of the existence of God. For in the final analysis, it is fundamental to Christianity that the distinction between reality and imagination be blurred, and if you scratch the chest-pounding surface of presuppositionalism, you’ll find that there is ultimately no argument here to begin with.

But make no mistake about it, presuppositionalists want us to take their claim that the laws of logic reflect their god’s nature seriously, and to accept it as truth. Yet it remains unclear what exactly this claim is supposed to mean, let alone why anyone should believe it. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find this claim in the bible itself, which according to Christianity is supposed to be the Christian god’s own self-revelation to man. If one does not learn that the laws of logic reflect the Christian god’s nature from the bible, how would one discover this? Or is it something one discovers in the first place, or is it something that apologists have stipulated as a core element in their debating strategy (such as FAG)? After examining the matter, it seems to me that the apologists have attempted to shoplift logic expressly for apologetic purposes, in spite of the fact that their god is really only imaginary and the actual basis of logic points unmistakably to non-Christian fundamentals (as I will show in my follow-up entry).

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s take a closer look at what presuppositionalists say about the relationship between logic and their god.

Bahnsen tells us that

One’s use of and account of logic is [sic] not something religiously neutral, but indicates [sic] something about one’s fundamental view of reality. (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 236.)

Of course, I would agree with this. I don’t think a thinker’s understanding and application of logic are “religiously neutral” in any way. Rather, I think that these point to a fundamental truth which is in fact incompatible with the religious view of the world (including Bahnsen’s Christianity). Again, I will elaborate on this point for my follow-up paper. For our present purposes, we are concerned to get a fuller understanding of how presuppositionalism characterizes the relationship between logic and the Christian god. It is because logic allegedly implies the Christian god, that presuppositionalists would hold that any human being’s “use and account of logic is [sic] not something religiously neutral.” Bahnsen is essentially trying to say that, since logic presupposes the reality of the Christian god (an assertion in bad need of both explanation and support), the non-Christian’s use of logic proves the absurdity of his non-Christian beliefs and confirms the truth of Christianity. This is, in essence, what the presuppositional strategy seems to amount to.

But with each iteration of this position, it seems to twist out of shape, making it all the more difficult to pin down exactly what this intimate relationship the Christian god allegedly has with logic.

For instance, consider the following statement which Bahnsen quotes from Van Til:

the Christian views logic as a reflection of God’s own thinking, rather than as laws or principles that are “higher” than God or that exist “in independence of God and man.” (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 236; quoting Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 11.)

Where earlier we were told that the laws of logic “reflect” the Christian god’s nature, now we’re told that logic is “a reflection of God’s own thinking.” While these do not appear to be equivalent statements (a person’s nature is a precondition of its ability to think and anything it actually does think), what is clear is that both views characterize logic as something dependent upon the Christian god in some way. How it is supposedly dependent upon the Christian god, again remains unclear.

In the present case, however, by characterizing logic as a “reflection” of someone’s actual thinking, presuppositionalism seems to reverse the proper relationship between logic and thought. Generally speaking, thinking is considered to require a standard to guide its path of identifications and inferences. When someone says that an individual’s thinking is logical on a given matter, he is essentially saying that it conforms to certain criteria which obtain independent of that thinking. Christians themselves imply agreement with this understanding of what it is to be logical, when they apply the concept ‘logical’ to any particular individual human being’s thinking. If a certain apologist’s argument is said by his peers to be logical, they essentially mean that the thinking behind it complies with logical norms.

Of course, an individual human being’s thinking is not what presuppositionalists have in mind when they intimate that logic reflects the actual thinking of a particular personality. While the reversal here remains unexplained, the thinking which they have in mind belongs to a being which their religion describes as omniscient and infallible. But this only complicates things further: an omniscient and infallible being wouldn’t need to make any inferences. Since it would presumably already know everything in the first place, how could it make sense to say it thinks? The task of thinking is to integrate facts and details one learns from reality in order to make specific identifications, assessments, evaluations, judgments, etc. Such a task seems to presuppose that its products are something which yet need to be achieved. Indeed, why would an omniscient and infallible being think, and what would it think about? For what purpose would it think? Such questions seem not to be considered by presuppositionalists who want to defend the view that logic presupposes the Christian god.

Returning to the claim that logic “reflects” the Christian god’s nature, this suggests that logic would be co-eternal with said god, since its nature is said to be eternally unchanging, and the laws of logic “are, therefore, eternal expressions of the unchanging character of God.” What, then, are we to make of the following statement by James J. Tyne, a student with Bahnsen Theological Seminary and contributor to The Standard Bearer: A Festschrift for Greg L. Bahnsen, Tyne writes emphatically:

There is nothing co-eternal with God or bigger than God; there are no over-arching realities, such as creaturely concepts of time, space, existence, logic, or possibility, alongside or supporting God or against which He could be measured. He transcends everything other than Himself.( “Putting Contexts in Their Place: God’s Transcendence in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book One,” The Standard Bearer, ed. S. M. Schlissel, p. 371)

This statement seems to completely contradict what Bahnsen himself has affirmed when he tells us that the laws of logic are “eternal expressions of the unchanging character of God.” Tyne insists that “there is nothing co-eternal with God” – so that means that logic is not “co-eternal with God,” that “there are no over-arching realities” – among them Tyne specifically mentions logic – and nothing “against which He could be measured” – which would render the claim that “God’s thinking is logical” impossible (since its thinking would hereby be measured according to the norms of logic).

So a controversy seems to be gnawing away within presuppositionalism here: is logic an “eternal expression” of the Christian god’s nature, or is it the case that “there is nothing co-eternal with God”? Both positions seem to cancel each other out.

One thing that all presuppositionalists seem to agree on, is that the Christian god is somehow “above” logic. For instance, in a paper titled Logic Proves the Existence of God: Part II, apologist Peter Pike insists that something “must be viewed in a hierarchical sense as being above logic” because “logic demands this in order for it to be valid,” and since “logic itself demands the existence of” this something that is “above logic,” this something “can only be described as ‘God’." Apparently what is being affirmed here is not only that the Christian god’s existence is required for logic to be valid, but also that the Christian god itself is not bound to logical norms in its own choices and actions. This latter point seems to be what results from the view that the Christian god is “above logic.” Pike himself seems to resist this implication. For instance, he insists that whatever it is which

logic demands… in order for it to be valid… [it] will behave in a manner that is logical, because we have seen how rigid and steadfast logic is. Whatever causes logic must be rigid and steadfast likewise, or else it would not cause logic to behave in that manner.

Pike seems to equate “rigid and steadfast” with the nature of logic, but logic is surely much more than this. The qualities of “rigid and steadfast” do not in and of themselves imply a consciousness which thinks (and to which, consequently, the norms of logic could apply). If something that is “rigid and steadfast” is all that is needed to provide logic with an unchanging and therefore reliable metaphysical basis, I see no reason why this requirement can only be fulfilled by the Christian god.

Moreover, my interpretation that being “above logic” suggests that the Christian god is not bound to logical norms in its own choices and actions is supported by a statement by Van Til, who writes that:

there is ‘no impersonal law of logic’ that dictates to God what He can or cannot say: the logical constraints of God’s thinking are the constraints of His own personal nature, which man is to emulate. Man’s logical reasoning, then, must always be pursued as a servant, subordinating his thoughts to the thinking of his Lord. (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 236; quoting The Defense of the Faith, 1st ed., p. 247.)

But even here we have mixed messages being thrown at us. It is clear that, on the one hand, the apologist wants to say that what his god “can or cannot say” is not dictated by logical laws which are “impersonal” – i.e., which obtain independent of its consciousness. This would mean that any laws of logic which may be said to guide what it “can or cannot say” would be “personal.” Since this does not seem to mean that the laws of logic are themselves conscious beings, by characterizing the laws of logic as “personal” the apologist apparently means that they are in some way dependent upon a personal being – i.e., on a conscious being, and since the conscious being in question is thought to be absolutely sovereign and also the “cause” of logic (per Pike above), the laws of logic in question must somehow conform to its intentions (as Van Til says, they are “a reflection of God’s own thinking”), and consequently the implication that logic somehow depends on the desires of said god seems unavoidable. On the other hand, however, by saying that “the logical constraints of God’s thinking are the constraints of his own personal nature,” Van Til apparently wants to give the impression that his god’s thinking conforms to a logical standard (since they are subject to “logical constraints”), implying that this logical standard obtains independent of its desires, that it somehow results from its “nature,” which presumably it did not choose for itself. In such a way, the apologist is here trying to argue two horns of a contradiction: one horn characterizes logic as something dependent on an absolutely sovereign personal being, and in so doing it subjugates logic to its volitional determinations, while the other horn insinuates that its thinking conforms to logical norms which implicitly obtain independent of its choices and actions. In fact, that the more we analyze the presuppositionalist’s view of logic and the relationship he claims it has with his god, the more it seems that the apologist cannot decide whether the nature of logic is objective or subjective, for both positions are implied in his statements.

Furthermore, the very notion that “the logical constraints of God’s thinking are the constraints of His own personal nature” seems rather baffling, if not completely vacuous. Since the “constraints” in question here are said to be the Christian god’s nature, those constraints would be metaphysical constraints which obtain independently of the Christian god’s choices, actions and thinking. In fact, if the Christian god is said to be able to choose, act and think, its nature would be a precondition of these performances, and therefore could not be a result or product of any of them. So to call the constraints of its nature “logical” is inappropriate, for it commits the fallacy of the stolen concept. Since one’s nature is not the result of his own conscious intentions, to call it “logical” fails to recognize that the genetic roots of the concept ‘logical’ have no part in what is being called “logical.” The problems seem to just get worse the more we probe presuppositionalism’s view of logic. But we’re not through yet.

Since Van Til invokes the “constraints” of the Christian god’s “nature,” let us ask: What exactly are those “constraints”? How do they vouchsafe the claim that its thinking is logical? A critical examination of the bible does not suggest that the god(s) it describes is (are) at all logical. But this should not surprise us, since logic has a teleological aspect to it, in that its application is always goal-oriented: one thinks or acts logically in the interest of achieving some end. But what goals could the Christian god logically be said to pursue? Could the “constraints” of the Christian god’s nature incline its choices and actions to comply with logical norms? It seems not. The Christian god is supposed to be eternal, immortal, impervious to harm, completely invincible. It does not face the fundamental alternative which biological organisms (of which man is a species) face. Given these points, the Christian god would have no objective basis for pursuing any goals or striving to achieve any aim. So what “constraints” of the Christian god’s nature compel us to suppose its thinking is at all logical? Blank out.

Moreover, isn’t man supposed according to Christianity to have been created in the image of this god? Would the Christian then say that “the logical constraints of [man’s] thinking are the constraints of [man’s] own personal nature”? I somehow doubt it. We’re always being told by Christians how depraved man is, how prone he is to deceiving and being deceived, how at odds he is with “the Truth.” This malady is, according to Christianity, not simply a result of an individual’s incidental choices and actions, but an inherent part of the nature with which he was born. According to this view, man is (apparently in spite of being created by an allegedly morally perfect creator in its own image) “inherently depraved”. And in spite of allegedly having been created by a perfect creator, it is because of this flaw with which he was created that man’s thinking is not automatically logical, as his creator’s thinking allegedly is. Man possesses a mere finite nature, a nature which is constrained to certain specifics with which he was, according to the Christian view, originally created. But apparently even this is not enough to constrain his thinking to logical norms. How much more would the thinking of a being whose nature is said to be infinite and unencumbered with creative limits, be “constrained” to some set of criteria (such as logic) which man (being inherently depraved) can comprehend? Questions such as these, which arise given Christianity’s stipulation that man is finite, inherently depraved and yet “created in the image” of the Christian god, apparently couldn’t be further from the presuppositionalist’s considerations.

Now in regard to what Van Til does affirm in the above quote, he seems to miss an important point. The question is not whether or not logic “dictates” or compels a thinker to think logically. Thinking itself is a volitional activity, and any given thinker chooses whether or not to adhere to logic as a norm. So the question for the Christian in this respect is whether or not he thinks his god chooses to think logically, or if logic is said to mirror its thinking regardless of what may think. Van Til’s statement suggests that logic is not a norm to which the Christian god volitionally conforms its thinking, as man should his own thinking. To do so would presume that logic is a norm independent of the Christian god’s actual thinking, just as it is in the case of man’s thinking. And this would not bode well for the relationship which presuppositionalists want to claim between their god and the nature of logic.

Quizzically, Van Til essentially says that “God’s thinking” conforms to “His own personal nature,” but this is not at all the same thing as saying that its thinking is logical, especially if the Christian god’s nature is supposed to be “infinite,” which would make its nature very broad indeed. If it is the case that man’s thinking can be both illogical and still be compatible with his nature as a finite being (and thus reflect the finitude of his nature), then presuppositionalists need to offer a better reason to suppose their god’s actual thinking is logical. In fact, what presuppositionalists offer in this regard seems to be a rather empty statement. A man’s thoughts could be said to conform to “his own personal nature,” regardless of whether or not they are logical. That one’s thoughts are in line with “the constraints of his own personal nature” in no way informs us whether or not those thoughts conform to the standards of logic. Since conformity to one’s own nature does not guarantee logical thinking in the case of finite beings, why suppose that conformity to one’s own nature in the case of an infinite being would guarantee logical thinking? Again, we have another blank-out here.

It would be helpful if the presuppositionalist could clarify whether or not his god has a choice in the matter of its thinking being logical. As I pointed out above, a human thinker must choose to govern his thinking according to logical norms; his thinking is not automatically logical, he has a choice in the matter. But statements by presuppositionalists imply that their god’s thinking is automatically logical, which could only suggest that it has no choice in the matter. Such a position could only trivialize the Christian god’s relationship to logic, making it the inevitable outcome of an impersonal set of causes. But this is precisely what presuppositionalists have been at pains to claim is not the case, and yet certain stipulations of theirs seem to require this assessment.

Van Til also makes the curious statement that “man is to emulate” this “personal nature” which he attributes to his god. The New Testament makes a similar injunction in Matthew 5:48: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Did Van Til think that he successfully did this? His god is described as being omniscient, omnipotent, infallible, infinite, able to manipulate facts (cf. Van Til, who claims: “God may at any time take one fact and set it into a new relation to created law” [The Defense of the Faith, 3rd ed., p. 27]), able to forgive sins at will, etc. But Christians are constantly reminding us of the profound fundamental differences between man’s nature (he is finite, fallible, non-omniscient, “totally depraved,” etc.) and the nature they ascribe to their god. All this suggests that Christianity holds man to an unrealistic standard which fundamentally contradicts his nature (since, as we are repeatedly told, man is “not God”). Why not simply recognize that we are human beings, and govern our worldview according to this fact? And why not simply recognize that the purpose of logic is to guide the thinking process of specifically non-omniscient, fallible minds? Should man deny the finitude, fallibility and non-omniscience of his mind, and in its place pretend that he thinks the thoughts of an invisible magic being rather than own thoughts? How far would that get anyone?

Part of the problem with the presuppositional account of logic thus far, is its tendency to logic to a descriptive artifice rather than a normative set of cognitive guidelines. On a rational understanding, logic is normative in that it identifies the proper conceptual hierarchy among one’s identifications and integrations as a standard to which one should strive to conform his thinking (if in fact he wants his thinking to have logical integrity). Presuppositionalist John Frame seems to understand this to some degree, but considers this quality of logic itself as an indicator of the Christian god’s reality. Frame writes:

…the power of logic is normative and ethical. It tells us what we ought to confess as a conclusion, granting our confession of premises. And if it is ethical, it is covenantal; like moral values, it rests on the dependable word of a trustworthy person, a Lord, our absolute divine personality. Thus, when unbelievers use logic to raise objections against Christianity, they are using something which, manipulate it how they may, points in the opposite direction. (Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 104)

Now of course, it is not at all clear how Frame concludes that something ethical is therefore also “covenantal,” unless of course this premise is built into his notion of ethics. Nor is it clear how moral values “rest on the dependable word of a trustworthy person” or “absolute divine personality.” I have pointed out before that, according to the objective theory of values (a theory which one will not learn from reading the bible), values not only find their metaphysical basis in the biological conditionality of man’s nature as a living organism, but also that an immortal and eternally indestructible being would have no need for values to being with, and that supposing moral values point to such a being involves a profound misunderstanding of what moral values are and why man needs them. (See for instance here, here and here.) Indeed, what would “the dependable word of a trustworthy person” have to do with man’s need for values and the types of values he needs? Similarly with logic, what would “the dependable word of a trustworthy person” have to do with logic’s normative nature? Is the assumption here that a “person” is required to command logic into some normative capacity for it to be useful to man? That would make logic both subjective and arbitrary. If not, why suppose that a “divine person” has anything to do with the nature and applicability of logic in the cognitive activity of non-omniscient, fallible minds?

Moreover, if the Christian god has no choice in the matter of whether or not its thinking is logical (as Van Til’s statement above suggests), then the ethical parameters which Frame grants to logic all the more miss the point. For ethical norms are only possible where there is choice in a given matter. If one has no choice in certain context, then there’s no use for a code of values whose purpose is to guide choices.

Presuppositionalism does seek to overcome its tendency to treat logic as simply descriptively by stating that man should “think God’s thoughts after Him,” which is a most baffling notion. An honest thinker thinks his own thoughts, not someone else’s. An honest man recognizes that he cannot, for instance, substitute someone else’s inferences and judgments in place of his own, and still call any mental operation he performs “thinking.” It would be fantasy instead of thinking at that point. Consider: how would someone know what a god thinks about anything? Of course, he could pretend, and I suspect that this is what believers making such preposterous claims are really doing. But of course they will not admit this. They really want to prop up the pretense that they truly are thinking their god’s thoughts after it. But to do this, they would have to know what those thoughts are, and in order to know what those thoughts are, he would have to be equipped with some cognitive ability by which he could access the thoughts of his god. What is this apparatus by which he claims to do this, how does it work, and how does he ensure (without thinking his own thoughts!) that it’s really working properly? Why not simply recognize that each of us thinks his own thoughts, and be willing to learn when mistakes are discovered? One would need an entire epistemology just to gain awareness of what his “God” thinks, but that would be self-defeating, given the ideal that is being endorsed here, since epistemology guides how one governs his own thinking.

Now apologists might say, in response to my points above, that there is in fact an argument which seals the case on behalf of the presuppositionalist’s claim that logic presupposes the existence of the Christian god. For instance, he might point to Michael Butler’s clarification of how “transcendental arguments” work on behalf of such claims:

Transcendental arguments attempt to discover the preconditions of human experience. They do so by taking some aspect of human experience and investigating what must be true in order for that experience to be possible. Transcendental arguments typically have the following form. For x (some aspect of human experience) to be the case, y must also be the case since y is the precondition of x. Since x is the case, y is the case. ( “The Transcendental Argument for God’s Existence,” The Standard Bearer, p. 79)

Butler does provide an example of how this argument scheme would work in the case of proving that causality presupposes the existence of the Christian god. He writes:

For causality to be possible, God has to exist since the existence of God is the precondition of causality. Since there is causality, God exists. A corollary of this is that whenever non-believers employ the concept of causation, they are borrowing from the Christian worldview since only on a Christian worldview does causation make sense. (Ibid.)

So presumably, according to the argumentative scheme which Butler proposes, the presuppositionalist argument for logic presupposing the existence of the Christian god might go as follows:

Premise 1: For logic to be the case, the Christian god must also be the case for the Christian god is the precondition of logic.
Premise 2: Logic is the case.
Conclusion: Therefore, the Christian god is the case.

Of course, there is in fact such a thing as logic, so it is an “aspect of human experience” which most people should agree on. But as for the argument we have here, it’s hard to see how it avoids the frivolity of presuppositionalism’s fondness for arbitrary stipulation cast in the form of a syllogism. The argument simply pulls the premise that “the Christian god is the precondition of logic” out of thin air, which is what the argument is supposedly supposed to defend in the first place. Contrary to what Butler tells us, there is no evidence here of an “attempt to discover the preconditions” of what is in question (whether it be causality or logic), or any sign of “investigating what must be true for [the phenomenon in question] to be possible.” There’s simply no research here to speak of. It’s not even clear how one could soberly make the inference which such arguments are supposedly displaying. Rather, what we seem to have here is another case of mere assertion pressed into the guise of argument, which we can rightly call “argument falsely so-called.”

And notice how easily Butler’s proposed scheme lends itself to “establishing” positions which no one takes seriously:

Premise 1: For logic to be the case, Blarko the Wonderbeing must also be the case for Blarko the Wonderbeing is the precondition of logic.
Premise 2: Logic is the case.
Conclusion: Therefore, Blarko the Wonderbeing is the case.

I strongly doubt that presuppositionalists would be persuaded by arguments such as this. But if this argument scheme works on behalf of proving the existence of the Christian god, why can it not work on behalf of proving the existence of Blarko the Wonderbeing? There must be other reasons for why presuppositionalists would suppose that logic might presuppose the existence of the Christian god, and these might vary from apologist to apologist. What is clear is that the argumentative scheme which Butler proposes is simply not up to the task it is touted to meet. It is also clear from statements examined above that presuppositionalism seems lost in its own muddle when it comes to explaining the relationship which the Christian god supposedly enjoys with logic’s foundations.

So in spite of all this mess, could there still be reasons why logic might presuppose the existence of the Christian god? In Part II, I will lay out some important reasons why logic could not presuppose the Christian god, and in so doing I will raise several objections to the presuppositional thesis which the apologetic literature unfortunately does not anticipate, let alone address.

by Dawson Bethrick

Friday, June 26, 2009

Is Existence Merely an Attribute?

In his essay Logic Presupposes the Existence of God, Peter Pike seeks to distinguish his position from that endorsed by Objectivist philosophy. He writes:

Contrary to Ayn Rand, it is not true that “existence exists” however. Existence is an attribute that describes some other thing. That is, whether material or immaterial, objects that exist have the attribute of existence. Existence itself cannot exist, for it is not an object but an attribute of objects. Existence, therefore, presupposes objects.

Pike should not worry that anyone who is familiar with Objectivism might mistake his position for Rand's. Unlike Pike’s view (as seen here), Objectivism does not affirm the reality of imaginary things.

I have seen statements similar to this before (see for instance here). Non-Objectivists often insist that existence is simply one attribute among many possessed by things which do in fact exist. In the present case, the reason which Pike provides for saying that “existence cannot exist,” is that existence is an attribute: “existence cannot exist,” because it is an attribute. Logically, this can only imply that attributes as such do not really exist, for this is the reason given for why existence cannot exist: since for Pike existence is a type of attribute, consequently it “cannot exist, for it is… an attribute of objects.” Given Pike’s reasoning, it would not make sense to say that attributes exist on the one hand, but on the other that existence cannot exist because it is an attribute. His reasoning requires that attributes (as a category broader than and including existence) “cannot exist.” Only by assuming all this can Pike say that “it is not true that ‘existence exists’.” But if “existence is an attribute that describes some other thing,” he cannot logically say that this “other thing” exists, for then he would be contradicting himself. Unfortunately, from here, the problems only get worse.

On the view that existence is merely an attribute of objects, for instance, the pen on my desk is an object consisting of the attributes of mass, material make-up, length, color, shape, texture, etc., plus this other stuff called ‘existence’. But while none of these attributes exist (since Pike’s position requires that they do not), the object possessing them can exist only so long as it includes along with all these other attributes the attribute of existence (which itself does not exist, since “existence cannot exist”). Presumably an object may have all the attributes needed for it to be a pen, and yet lack the attribute of existence, and therefore it would not really exist (except perhaps immaterially, as a figment of imagination).

Also, apparently on this view, only objects exists, not their attributes. So when I look at the pen on my desk which possesses the attributes of mass, length, color, shape, texture, even existence, none of these attributes exist, even though I perceive them. The object which I perceive can of course be divided into attributes, but those attributes don’t really exist; isolating the attributes which objects possess may be an enjoyable academic pastime, but since attributes do not really exist, such an exercise must be entirely frivolous, having no practical value. Moreover, since “existence… presupposes objects,” it is questionable to say that any object which I perceive exists, for on this rendering objects are apparently considered to be independent of existence (since “existence… presupposes objects”). So on this view it would presumably be wrong to say that any object I perceive exists as well.

To say that these other attributes (e.g., mass, material make-up, color, shape, etc.) exist, would only compound the problems we’ve already run into here. For one thing, it would go against the very reason which Pike gives for saying that “existence cannot exist,” namely that (on his view) existence is merely an attribute, which (as we saw above) can only imply that attributes as such do not exist. Additionally, if this reasoning is rescinded in order to make allowance for attributes to exist, then either Pike would have to admit that existence does in fact exist (even if only as an attribute), or find some other way as yet unstated by Pike for supposing that “existence cannot exist.” Moreover, if the attribute of existence (which does not exist) is needed for things to exist, then these other attributes would in and of themselves need the attribute of existence (which, again, does not exist) in order to exist. But this seems entirely impossible, given the stipulations of Pike’s position.

To salvage his position from this growing list of absurdities, Pike would have to revise it so significantly that it would bear little if any resemblance to what he originally stated above. As it stands, however, this all seems so problematic and unnecessary that it makes me wonder why any thinker might find it attractive in the first place. There is of course the epistemological question of knowing whether or not an object has the attribute of existence, especially if it is held to be the case that “existence cannot exist.” How can you tell that an object has an attribute which “cannot exist”? To suppose that an object possesses an attribute, is to confer existence to that attribute. But if it is said that the attribute in question “cannot exist,” then there seems no exit from the resulting philosophical muddle here.

Of course, Pike is correct in pointing out that this is not Ayn Rand’s position. Indeed, far from it. Rand recognized that the concept ‘existence’ is the widest of all concepts, in that it includes (i.e., denotes) everything which exists. Of course, appreciating these facts and their significance for the present matter is really only possible with at least some understanding of the objective theory of concepts. Since Christianity does not seem to have any native theory of concepts (let alone an objective theory of concepts), Pike’s confusion on these points is not at all surprising. But hope is not all lost, for there is a way out of the muddle which results from the position he endorses.

Specifically, it is important to keep in mind that, for Rand, a concept is a mental integration of multiple units, and that “the units involved may be any aspect of reality: entities, attributes, actions, qualities, relationships, etc.” (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 10). Objectivism holds that “existence and identity are not attributes of existents, they are the existents,” and this is because “the units of the concepts ‘existence’ and ‘identity’ are every entity, attribute, action, event or phenomenon (including consciousness) that exists, has ever existed or will exist” (Ibid., p. 56). We do this with other concepts, such as the concept ‘man’: the concept ‘man’ includes every man who exists, who has ever existed and who will exist, given the open-endedness of its denotation, i.e., given its universality. So why can’t we do the same with the concept ‘existence’? Why cannot the concept ‘existence’ include everything that exists? Why cannot Rand say “existence exists” and thereby essentially mean that all the units which the concept ‘existence’ includes do in fact exist? Not only have I seen no good reason to suppose Rand’s view, understood in its proper context, is philosophically illegitimate, it’s quite unclear to me why anyone would think such a position is controversial, let alone prefer the muddle which results from the view that “existence cannot exist, for it is not an object but an attribute of objects.”

Perhaps it is simply too difficult for thinkers who believe that existence does not (or “cannot”) exist (or that even the objects which they perceive do not exist, as Pike’s view logically requires in the final analysis) to grasp any of this. After all, on their view, what does exist? For someone to say that “existence cannot exist” can, in the end, only mean that nothing exists, whether or not this is what he intended to say. Sometimes people say things without really examining what it is they’re affirming, without grasping the implications of the point they are trying to make, or understanding the ramifications of denying the position they’re hoping to discredit. This is one reason why the Objectivist axioms are so powerful: one has to assume their truth, even if only implicitly, in the very act of denying them. And in so doing, they’re simply contradicting themselves while confirming the position they hope to discredit (see for instance here). Consequently, insistence on such denials does not at all bode well for one’s position. Then again, if the position in question is fundamentally bankrupt from the very start (as is the case with theism), then such self-refuting absurdities are to be expected.

I’m glad these aren’t my problems!

by Dawson Bethrick

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Is the “Immaterial” Actually Imaginary?

Peter Pike has, over the years, published several articles on various personal websites of his, trying to make the case in one way or another that logic somehow proves the existence of a god. This seems to be an important component of Pike’s apologetic. For instance, in my Contra Pike files, which chronicles my interactions with Pike back in 2003, you will find Pike (under the moniker “CogentThesis”) making statements like the following:

My argument has been that God is the source of logic... What I mean is that God's existence demands that logic be valid… Thus, in my system, God is axiomatic in order for logic to work… Logic is part of the character of God--it is one of His attributes.

You get the idea.

Of his several papers bent on proving some fundamental association between a god and logic, I can find only one of them online now (however, he has several blogs on the topic; see for instance here, here, here, here, and here). As for the case which Pike lays out in this one from his current personal site, I’m reminded overall of one of the premises in an argument which William Lane Craig gave for the universe having a beginning. With numerous digressions and “bunny trails,” as Pike adequately calls them, it is not always easy to know where exactly he’s going with what he presents.

In the opening of his paper, however, Pike does make what appears to be a most startling admission, particularly coming from a Christian apologist. It is when he is discussing what the concept ‘existence’ means that Pike makes the following statement:

When something “exists” it is. Note that this does not mean that we are dealing with physical or material existence. Indeed, immaterial existence also exists. (For evidence of this, imagine a red ball. The red ball you have imagined does not have any physical existence; it exists immaterially. Granted, one can argue that the immaterial existence is based on a material brain, but the ball that is imagined is not material. It does not exist physically anywhere.)

Christians are often anxious to make it known to the world that they believe in the existence of what they call “the immaterial.” Here Pike makes sure to clarify that, according to his view, “immaterial existence also exists.” What does he mean by this? The “evidence” which Pike cites for the existence of “immaterial existence” says it all: he makes it clear that the “evidence” for “immaterial existence” is something one imagines. If you imagine a red ball, for instance, it “does not have any physical existence,” but Pike assures us that it does in fact exist, and that “it exists immaterially.”

Did you get that? According to Pike, when you imagine a ball, that ball really does exist, and what’s more, “it exists immaterially.” Apparently Pike believes that people can make things exist just by imagining them. Perhaps this is supposed to be a human version of creation ex nihilo: you imagine a ball, and Poof! it exists. The reason why we don’t see the ball we imagined into existence, is because “it exists immaterially,” and whatever is “immaterial” is not accessible to the senses, just as things which we imagine are not accessible to the senses.

Now isn’t it curious how Pike chooses to cite something imaginary not only as an example of something that is “immaterial,” but also as evidence that “immaterial existence” really does exist?

It is unmistakable that Christians typically consider their god as something that qualifies as “immaterial existence.” But significantly, Pike clearly equates “immaterial existence” with things that are imaginary. Typically, however, Christians want everyone else to believe that their god is actually real, and not imaginary, and by so insisting they implicitly acknowledge that there is in fact a fundamental distinction between the real on the one hand, and the imaginary on the other. For Pike, however, this distinction has been erased altogether, a move which is far more consistent with theism’s subjective basis than the usual denials we see from theists. I have asked elsewhere on my blog for theists to explain how one can reliably distinguish between what they call “God” and what they may merely be imagining. Unfortunately, theists usually offer no response here, and when they do it has not been helpful to their position at all.

Now it is important to note, when asking about things that exist, that it is a fair question to ask where that alleged something exists, particularly if its location is not immediately discernable. If I tell my neighbor that I own a BMW, for instance, but he only sees me time and time again driving a Ford everyday, and has never seen a BMW in my driveway, he very well might wonder where I’m hiding my BMW. And in such a case, there would be nothing fallacious about asking such a question.

But the theist might likely stop me here and again point to his god’s “immaterial” nature as reason to say that such questions simply do not apply in the case of his god. Apparently we’re supposed to believe that his god exists everywhere (it is “omnipresent,” which is presumably not the case with all “immaterial existence”). Unfortunately, in regard to this we really have nothing other than his claim to go on. Then of course there are likely going to be qualifications for this. For instance, does his god exist in the hearts of evil men? Proverbs 15:29 seems to answer this in the negative: “The LORD is far from the wicked.” And if it is maintained that there are in fact evil men in the universe (which, according to Christianity, not only exists, but was also created by said god), then it seems that the claim that the Christian god exists everywhere is mistaken.

Regardless, it would be easy for any person to claim that something which is merely imaginary exists everywhere, or everywhere except in the hearts of those he considers wicked. I can, for instance, claim that Blarko exists everywhere, and even give as the reason why no one sees Blarko is because Blarko is an example of “immaterial existence,” so it would be foolish to expect to be able to see Blarko (aren’t those unbelievers in Blarko stupid?). But in spite of such explanations, it’s still the case that Blarko is only something that I have imagined. And this is significant in my view, for in my view there is a fundamental distinction between the real and the imaginary.

Now if the theist has difficulty distinguishing between the real and the imaginary, that seems to be a major problem. If he has difficulty explaining how the rest of us can reliably distinguish between what he calls “God” and what he is simply imagining, he could face insurmountable challenges when it comes to his proselytizing efforts. This is why evangelists always have better chances of success by going after those who are unclear on the nature of objectivity.

It is also interesting to see how Pike explains what he means by the word “God”. In the same article, he writes:

By “God” we mean an eternal, self-existent, necessary and immaterial being who is transcendent, omnipotent, and immutable. Other attributes may, perhaps, fit in as well, but I think it is sufficient for the task to limit ourselves to these attributes.

I find this description most curious because I would have thought that a theist would consider the attribute of consciousness to be of such fundamental importance to the nature of his god, that he would hardly fail to mention it among the attributes he considers important enough to list. I don’t think that any of the attributes which Pike does list necessarily implies or presupposes consciousness. But perhaps Pike might disagree here. Either way, since things which we imagine serve as “evidence” for “immaterial existence,” I can certainly imagine a being which possesses the attributes which Pike lists, but which at the same time lacks any faculty of consciousness whatsoever, just as easily as I can imagine that it is conscious. One can, after all, pretty much imagine just about anything, including the Christian god. In fact, however, it seems that Christians like to distinguish Christian theism from certain eastern religions precisely because of their alleged enshrinement of what they consider “impersonal” gods. Then again, Pike does point out that his argument “does not necessitate the existence of the Christian God at all,” allowing that “other forms of theism may… fit the argument as well,” so long as they have the attributes which Pike does list. I’m trying to think, however, of any version of theism which affirms a god which lacks consciousness, and I’m afraid I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Rather, it seems that Pike’s failure to include the attribute of consciousness in the list of those which distinguish what he means by “God,” is an oversight on his part rather than a calculated omission. And if it is an oversight, what does this say about Pike’s god-belief?

Regardless, the incoherence of such Christian babble ultimately finds its source, not only in the bible, but in the believer’s desire to take the bible seriously as an authority on philosophical matters. I have pointed out before that the bible, which is at the center of the Christian religion, exploits the believer’s imagination. As I explained in one of my responses to commenter Vytautas:

…like Harry Potter novels, the bible describes things that we never see in reality, things which we can only imagine by ignoring what we know about reality (such as that young boys can fly on broomsticks or men can walk on unfrozen water, etc.).

Vytautas was anxious to distinguish the bible from Harry Potter novels by pointing out that:

The Bible claims to be the word of God unlike Harry Potter or other fiction novels, and it gives an explanation of how we can be saved from the wrath to come.

But such statements of faith miss the point that the biblical idea of “the wrath to come” (which is invoked in order to cause fear in the bible’s readers) is itself something which could only be imaginary. Even if it is something that one believes will happen one day, it hasn’t happened yet, and can only be imagined until it does happen. So even the Christian must admit that it is imaginary. If it is not imaginary, then it must have already taken place, and to that the non-believer can rightly say “Big whoopee!”

Moreover, Oxford University mathematician and defender of Christianity Dr. John Lennox agrees with my basic point that “the bible describes things we never see, things which we can only imagine,” when he tells us early on in a talk of his that

…one of the wonders of God’s creation of the human mind, is its ability to imagine. And parts of the bible are written so that we can imagine the realities that stand fundamental to our faith. And what better book, than the book of Revelation, to do precisely that? (Using Scripture to Engage the Mind and Imagination; underlining added.)

It is always encouraging to see Christian apologists, like John Lennox and Peter Pike, admitting in one way or another that their imagination plays a significant role in their god-belief. Here Lennox admits that “the realities that stand fundamental” to the Christian faith are something one must imagine based on the storytelling material found in the bible. This is something I’ve been pointing out for a long time. I must admit that it is gratifying to find apologists confirming my verdicts with their incidental affirmations.

Is the "immaterial" actually imaginary? It certainly seems so.

by Dawson Bethrick

Monday, June 22, 2009

Demystifying Universality

The Presuppositional Challenge

In his famed debate with the atheist Dr. Gordon Stein, Christian apologist Greg Bahnsen makes it clear that he thinks universality is beyond any non-Christian’s ability to “account for” in terms consistent with a non-Christian worldview. On Bahnsen’s view, universality presupposes the omniscience and unchanging character which Christianity attributes to its god. For instance, for the laws of logic to be considered universal and unchanging, they must be grounded (so the thinking goes) in a mind which is omniscient and universal, a mind which does not change. Of course, this tends to characterize the Christian god as a mind that does not think, since change is action, and thinking is a type of action. An unchanging mind is a mind which does not act, and a mind which does not act is a mind that is incapable of thinking.

However, in spite of such problems, he presses Stein to provide an “account for” universality which is compatible with his atheism. In their debate, Bahnsen asks:

Now in an atheist universe, what are the laws of logic? How can they be universal, abstract, invariant? And how does an atheist justify the use of them? Are they merely conventions imposed on our experience, or are they something that look like absolute truth?

Bahnsen inquires Stein on the topics of universality, abstraction and invariance so much throughout their debate, that one gets the impression that Bahnsen simply does not know how a non-Christian would answer his questions. When Bahnsen then announces that

No other world view [other than Christianity, that is] can… account for universal invariant, abstract entities

without producing an argument for such a claim, it appears that Bahnsen is simply speaking from his own ignorance here: “I don’t know how a non-Christian worldview can account for universal, invariant and abstract entities, so I conclude that no non-Christian worldview can.” In connection with this and similar apologetic strategies, I have already proposed that presuppositionalism inherently involves dependence on argument from ignorance.

The Problem

To be sure, failing to produce an “account for” universality is, for Bahnsen, a major philosophical deficiency. Then again, if the failure to provide an “account for” universality is sufficient for us to conclude that a specific position cannot provide such an “account,” then what are we to make of the bible? I see nothing which approaches a discussion of universality in the bible (much less an “account for” it), so should we conclude that the biblical worldview cannot “account for” universality? Bahnsen would not have this, for he is clearly eager to situate universality on the foundations of Christian theism. He gives his own understanding of the issue as follows:

If the laws of science, the laws of logic, and the laws of morality are not seen as expressions of the unchanging mind of God, then the notion of universal and absolute “laws” or the concept of order in the contingent, changing world of matter makes no sense whatsoever. In what way could anything truly be universal and law-abiding when every event is isolated and random? If universality is supposed to be objective, then there is no justification for holding to it on the basis of man’s limited experience, whereas if universality is subjective (internal to man’s thinking), then it is arbitrarily imposed by man’s mind on his experience without warrant. (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 110n.65)

From such statements, Bahnsen makes it clear that universality on the one hand, and “the contingent, changing world of matter” on the other, are somehow incompatible with each other. The world is concrete and in constant “flux” as some have put it, while universality is abstract, unchanging, fixed and stable. Universality, then, could not presumably have its source or origin in the “contingent, changing world of matter” which we all know and adore in our firsthand experiences. Since universality needs something that is unchanging in order to give it a solid and reliable basis, its source or origin must be “the unchanging mind of God.” This makes all the more sense for Bahnsen because his god is supposed to be conscious, and one of the unstated premises to all of this is that universality is epistemological, i.e., a cognitive function. So an “unchanging mind” seems perfectly suited to settle the matter for the theist; he is content to rest once his god-belief has provided what he considers a perfect solution to the matter.

Of course, one could always ask, given Bahnsen’s presentation of the problem, questions such as the following: If universality is so otherworldly and alien to the “contingent, changing world of matter” in which we live, to what would universality apply in our experience? And why would being able to “account for” it be an important task for any worldview to produce, especially if there’s nothing in our experience to which we could apply it? The need to mount a full investigation into answering questions like this has been avoided by presuppositionalism for the same reason that Bahnsen’s “account for” universality seems so satisfying for the theist, namely that universality is epistemological, not metaphysical. Universality is primarily a cognitive issue, one which is not explained simply by pointing to something that is “unchanging.” But doesn’t that which is unchanging epistemologically need something that is unchanging metaphysically to give it the invariance we need it to have?

Unchanging Basis

While universality can in fact be thought of as unchanging, its invariance is not, contrary to what Bahnsen appears to be saying, the only factor to consider in searching for an “account for” universality. If that were the case, the theist could have no argument against the Objectivist axiom of existence as the solid, unchanging underpinning of universality, for the simple reason that the fact that existence exists (the fact identified by the axiom of existence) does not change. Had this fact ever changed, no one would be here to bicker about the proper “account for” universality.

But the suitability of the axiom of existence is even stronger than just this. Keep in mind that the axiom ‘existence exists’ is an axiom, that is, a formal recognition by a mind. So there is an epistemological element here which is undeniably part and parcel to the invariance of its truth. The act of recognizing the fact that existence exists is a cognitive action of a mind, and what it names is the fundamental metaphysical precondition of any change which someone (like Bahnsen) might want to cite as a source of problems for or incompatibility with universality.

If we keep everything in its proper context, however, such complaints will not prevail and can be easily dismissed. Things in the world can be ever-changing; trees can have leaves one day and no leaves another; Tokyo can have a population of only 600,000 one day, and nine million another; I can have a beard one moment, and a few minutes later it’s been shaven off. But in spite of all this, there are certain facts which remain constant throughout, such as: regardless of whether or not I have a beard, regardless of Tokyo’s present population, regardless of the seasons and the trees and the leaves on the ground, the universe exists. The fact that things exists is a constant, an ever-unchanging fact which underlies all change which we notice. In fact, the existence of the universe is a precondition for any change to take place (presumably even for the Christian, for it is the world which is “contingent” and “changing”), for if the universe did not exist, then what would be changing? If the universe did not exist, what would give rise to the problem as Bahnsen sees it?

So the incompatibility which is so central to Bahnsen’s presentation of the matter, really isn’t the insurmountable problem he seems to think it is. Yes, change does occur, but not all facts are changing. Tokyo’s population may change, but the fact that the universe in which Tokyo can be found exists, does not change. The metaphysical basis, then, for the epistemological invariance which universality requires, according to Bahnsen, is right here under our very noses. We need not look for answers outside the universe, to the imaginary realms which anyone can concoct and to which one might flee when faced with issues that are described in such a manner as to be hopelessly unresolvable without such flights of fancy.

The Conceptual Nature of Universality

Given Bahnsen’s statements about universality, it is clear that he had a rather superficial understanding of the matter. This is all the more demonstrated by what he accepted as a solution to the problem as he understood it. Universality is not a metaphysical phenomenon residing beyond the universe and waiting to be discovered by man through some mystical means (such as by divine afflatus from an invisible magic being, by anamnesis, etc.), but an epistemological outcome of the process of abstraction. In fact, contrary to what theists like Bahnsen might assume, universality as it applies to our knowledge presupposes not the omniscience of a supernatural mind, but the non-omniscience of man’s mind. This is because universality is an aspect of conceptual awareness. I have already produced an argument for why an omniscient mind, such as that which Christianity claims its god possesses, would not have knowledge in conceptual form here. The proper “account for” universality, abstract and invariant truths, then, is to be found in the objective theory of concepts, whose worldview foundations are wholly non-theistic. To link universality to the cognition of an omnipotent mind misses a most fundamental point about the issue at hand.

Since this matter has ultimately to do with the nature of concepts, we need to have explicit understanding of what a concept is in order to appreciate universality as an aspect of conceptual awareness. Ayn Rand gives us this understanding when she writes:

A concept is not formed by observing every concrete subsumed under it, and does not specify the number of such concretes. A concept is like an arithmetical sequence of specifically defined units, going off in both directions, open at both ends and including all units of that particular kind. For instance, the concept “man” includes all men who live at present, who have ever lived or will ever live. An arithmetical sequence extends into infinity, without implying that infinity actually exists; such extension means only that whatever number of units does exists, it is to be included in the same sequence. The same principle applies to concepts: the concept “man” does not (and need not) specify what number of men will ultimately have existed – it specifies only the characteristics of man, and means that any number of entities possessing these characteristics is to be identified as “men.” (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pp. 17-18)

Notice the example which Rand provides here: the concept of ‘man’. The concept ‘man’ “includes all men who live at present, who have ever lived or will ever live.” The range of reference of the concept ‘man’ is open-ended; it does not specify a number of units to which it must refer. So there is nothing mysterious about universality. Universality in conceptual thought is nothing more than the open-endedness of conceptual integration. That is, universality is essentially man’s conscious ability to include an unlimited quantity of units within a concept’s scope of reference given its specific definition.

Of course, this understanding of universality was not available to Bahnsen because his worldview (Christianity) does not provide the objective theory of concepts which makes such understanding possible. This is why Bahnsen preferred a story-book understanding of universality, supposing that an invisible magic being is needed to make universality possible and meaningful. What Bahnsen did not understand is the process by which the human mind abstracts from the particulars he perceives in his experience. Essentially, he did not know what a concept really is. So to correct this deficiency, I quote again from Ayn Rand:

A concept is a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated according to a specific characteristic(s) and united by a specific definition… The units involved may be any aspect of reality: entities, attributes, actions, qualities, relationships, etc.; they may be perceptual concretes or other, earlier-formed concepts. The act of isolation involved is a process of abstraction: i.e., a selective mental focus that takes out or separates a certain aspect of reality from all others (e.g., isolates a certain attribute from the entities possessing it, or a certain action from the entities performing it, etc.). The unit involved is not a mere sum, but an integration, i.e., a blending of the units into a single, new mental entity which is used thereafter as a single unit of thought (but which can be broken into its components whenever required). (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 10)

It should be clear, then, why universality is an outcome of the process of abstraction. The units defined by a concept are integrated into a mental unit which does not specify how many units can satisfy that definition. It is open-ended, which means that all units satisfying a concept’s definition are included in its range of reference. And this open-endedness is not restricted only to the quantity of units subsumed by a concept’s scope of reference, but also to temporal constraints.

Taking Rand’s example of the concept ‘man’, notice how this concept includes every man who exists today, who has existed in the past and who will ever exist in the future, regardless of his height, weight, hair color, facial hair, place of habitation, year of birth, line of work, number of siblings, political affiliation, etc. While it is a fact, for instance, that Dmitri Shostakovich was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia in 1906, and went on to become one of the Soviet Union’s most renown and prolific composers of concert music, we can include Shostakovich in the concept ‘man’ because he enjoys certain fundamental similarities with other men who have lived, such as Aristotle, Augustine, Confucius, Thomas Edison, King George III, John F. Kennedy, Bill Gates, or any other man.

It must be pointed out here that the concept ‘man’ does not exclude the particulars which belong to these individuals. On the contrary, in spite of the fact that this is the common assumption (see for instance Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 26), the concept ‘man’ in fact includes these attributes in their particular measurements, but it does not specify that all men need to possess them in any specific measurement. Whether a man may be 5’4” tall or 6’2”, a machinist or a welfare-recipient or a Fortune 500 CEO, born in BC 212 or AD 1912, longhaired or bald, Mongoloid or Caucasian, married or perpetually single, octogenarian or a twenty-something, a lover of his wife or a hater of his family, he is included in the scope of reference denoted by the concept ‘man’. This is what universality is: the ability of a non-omniscient mind to economize what it observes in reality in a manner which allows it to integrate subsequent observations into a consistently integrated unit. There is no need for the concept’s definition to vary with the specifics of any given case, since each given is integrated into the meaning of the concept by means of measurement-omission.

Concepts, then, allow an individual to have awareness of objects beyond those which he only immediately perceives. For instance, I have perceived only so many men in my life. But the concept ‘man’ in effect gives me awareness of men whom I have not perceived and never will perceive. It is not the same kind of awareness as perception, but concepts allow me to overcome perception’s limitation of awareness of only those objects which are immediately accessible to my senses.

Contrary to Bahnsen’s assumptions, then, universality is in fact an aspect of concepts, and as such presupposes the non-omniscience of human consciousness. There is nothing otherworldly going on here. Universality is an outcome of man’s method of identifying and integrating what he perceives.

Grounding on Universal Truths

But aren’t universal truths needed to ground one’s worldview, and thus need a “universal mind” which can provide man with such grounding? The above points already bring much of this into question. If universality is the product of a process of abstraction which man’s mind can perform, and the truths which universal identifications name are available to human cognition through such a process that his mind can perform, why would this be a problem for the non-Christian? In fact, why would it not be a problem for the Christian? To see why there is no need for this to be a problem for the non-theist, let us review what Bahnsen means by “universal” in the context of the Vantillian presuppositional apologetic strategy:

Van Til uses the term “universal” for any truth of a general or abstract nature – whether it be a broad concept, law, principle, or categorical statement. Such general truths are used to understand, organize, and interpret particular truths encountered in concrete experience. As Van Til goes on to say, if one does not begin with some such general truths (universal) with which to understand the particular observations in one’s experience, those factual particulars would be unrelated and uninterpretable – i.e., “brute.” (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 38n.10)

If it is the case that one needs to “begin with some such general truths (universal) with which to understand the particular observations in one’s experience,” then clearly the Objectivist is on safe ground. For his worldview begins with an incontestably true axiom whose scope is as broadly universal as one can get, namely the axiom ‘existence exists’. Not only is the concept ‘existence’ the widest of all concepts (for it includes everything which exists), the fact which the axiom of existence identifies is both a precondition of all thought (if there were no existence, there could be no one to think about anything) and an inescapable presupposition to all cognition (since its truth is implicit in all identifications). The Objectivist’s observations are observations of actually existing objects which exist independent of his own consciousness, and integrated into the sum of his knowledge on the basis of a worldview rooted in irreducible identifications of a universal nature. In such a way the preconditions for a unified sum of knowledge consistent with itself and also corresponding to the world of objects existing independent of one’s knowledge, have been satisfied by his worldview’s fundamentals.

Contrast this with the Christian’s dilemma on this point: he confessionally begins, not with the axiom of existence, but with the declaration that the Christian god exists. In this way, he does make use of the axiom of existence by needing it to be true in order to make such declarations (if it were not true, he would not exist and could not claim that his god exists) and by logically presupposing its truth in the very formation of his confession (where did he get the concept ‘exists’?). But he does not recognize the axiom of existence as his starting point, nor does he give it credit for the truth he claims on behalf of his confessional declaration. This latter fact becomes clear when the primacy of consciousness is exposed as the fundamental underpinning of his worldview’s confessional system (see for instance my blog The Inherent Subjectivism of God-belief).

But notice how the Christian’s confessional starting point that “God exists” fails to meet Bahnsen’s own stated criteria for integrating (i.e., “understanding, organizing, and interpreting”) “particular truths encountered in concrete experience,” for understanding “the particular observations in one’s experience,” and for avoiding the scourge of “brute” (i.e., “unrelated and uninterpretable”) fact: the claim “God exists” is not a universal statement, for it is making a declaration about a single entity rather than a class of many entities. The word “God” is properly not a concept, unless of course the Christian wants to admit to polytheism (in which case ‘god’ would take on the characteristics of a concept, integrating two or more entities into a single mental unit; but this would lead to yet other problems). But orthodox Christianity has been most emphatic in its insistence that Christianity is monotheistic (cf. Rom. 3:30; I Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:6; I Tim. 2:5, James 2:19). According to Christianity’s own teachings, then, “God” is not a universal, for it is supposed to denote a specific entity which is sui generis, i.e., entirely unique, without equal, and singularly occurring. Dr. Robert Bruce Shelton confirms this when he states bluntly: “Theologically speaking, only God is sui generis” (Jesus the Exegete: A Study of Mark 12:26-27). A term denoting an entity which is supposed to be sui generis is by its very nature not a universal term (since it is not integrating a group of entities which are similar in some way into a single mental unit), but essentially a proper name (which is why English-speaking Christians put a capital ‘G’ in “God”). The claim, then, that “God exists” is not at all universal in the sense of a “truth of a general or abstract nature” (I wouldn’t call it a truth to begin with, but even according to Christianity, it is supposed to be a truth, but not a universal truth as Bahnsen describes), so it fails to satisfy Bahnsen's own criteria for avoiding "brute fact."

In spite of this, Bahnsen carries on as if Christianity not only equips the believer for integrating his particular observations into an integrated whole, but also as if only Christianity can so do this. But as we have seen, according to Bahnsen’s own stated criteria, this could not be the case. It is at this point that the Christian is likely to resort to anecdotal positions (essentially storybook claims) to shore up the discrepancy. Yes, he may admit, “God” is sui generis and therefore the statement “God exists” is not universal in scope as Bahnsen explains, but since this god “created” everything else (indeed, the whole universe!), it is in essence the “Father” of the universe, and therefore (as Van Til would put it) “back of” everything that is universal. These additional claims, then, are made in the hope of exempting the claim “God exists” from having to satisfy the criteria stipulated by Bahnsen for understanding, organizing and interpreting one’s particular observations in a unified manner and thus avoiding the insuperable throes of “brute” facts. But such moves constitute an admission that the claim “God exists” does in fact not meet Bahnsen’s own stated criteria for integrating particular observations into a meaningful whole, and the need to accommodate such exemptions by reference to storybook details which must ultimately be accepted on faith, only make the whole Christian regime all the more dubious. Were a non-Christian to produce as his starting point a statement of particular scope (comparable in this regard to the Christian’s own claim that “God exists”) and seek to excuse its failure to meet Bahnsen’s stated criteria for holistic worldview integration by pointing to unprovable claims about alleged particular events in the remote past which are completely inaccessible to scientific investigation, he would be cited as an example of what presuppositionalism encourages believers to expect: non-Christians are unable to “account for” worldview intelligibility given their insufficient starting point.

The proper understanding of universality is that it is a component of the objective theory of concepts. As I indicated above, I have not found any theory of concepts in the bible, and am skeptical that Christianity in general can produce any theory of concepts (even a bad one) without borrowing from non-Christian teachings. For more details on the objective theory of concepts, I refer readers to Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, which outlines the basics of the abstraction process. Unfortunately, my firsthand experience with Christian apologists suggests that they really are not very interested in understanding concept theory or the rudiments of universality, for when I have taken the time to explain these things to them, they typically disengage and become uninterested in further discussion, even though (or perhaps because) their apologetic questions have been answered.

Universality and Objectivity

Now Bahnsen’s defenders might come back and say that, since concepts are mental integrations, they are subjective (since they are “internal to man’s thinking”). But this objection is based on a misunderstanding of the concept of objectivity. In fact, if the conception of objectivity assumed by this objection is correct, this objection itself falls under its own sword, for it is comprised of mental integrations. And more broadly, if “internal to one’s thinking” is the essential which distinguishes something as subjective in nature, how is anything that the Christian god supposedly thinks not subjective? How could Christianity's "spiritual truths," whose bases allegedly reside beyond sense perception, be other than "internal to man's thinking" and therefore also subjective on this account?

Such conceptions of objectivity will not do, for they fail to isolate the proper essential. First of all it is important to note that objectivity has to do with the method by which we identify and integrate what we perceive (for details, see Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 110-121).

Since perception is an automatic process, there is no choice involved in the nature of the objects which we perceive. But what we do mentally with what we perceive is subject to our volition. We have, for instance, the choice to maintain fidelity between our identifications and integrations on the one hand, and the objects which we perceive on the other. Or, we can of course allow our imaginations to blur this distinction, thus allowing our identifications and integrations to distort what we have perceived beyond recognition. Objectivity is essentially the primacy of existence applied to epistemological activity. Subjectivism, on the other hand, grants metaphysical primacy to consciousness in some respect. The objective theory of concepts, as outlined in Rand’s book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, teaches how we can maintain this fidelity to the objects of our perception, to adhere to the primacy of existence in our epistemological activity. Any other theory will be prone to granting metaphysical primacy to consciousness, thus resulting in subjectivism in our epistemological activity. If the theist is truly concerned about the hazards of subjectivism, he should abandon his theism, for theism is inherently subjective. That a theist is presented with this truth and yet chooses to remain a theist, indicates that his expressed concern for a position’s alleged result in subjectivism is really just a ruse. And one should not be reluctant to expose it as such.

by Dawson Bethrick

Friday, June 19, 2009

Theistic Misuse of the Concepts of Meaning, Value and Purpose

A common ad hominem tactic used by Christian apologists against non-Christians (and particularly against non-theists) is the claim, made one way or another, that life without the Christian god has no meaning. In this blog I will examine this claim and several interpretations of it, to determine whether or not such claims have any merit to recommend them. If such claims are determined to have various integral problems, as I argue that they do, then non-believers are wholly justified in rejecting them.

The Concept of Meaning

Famed Christian apologist Cornelius Van Til wrote the following:

Our existence and our meaning, our denotation and our connotation are derived from God. We are already fully interpreted before we come into existence. God knows us before and behind; he knows the thoughts of our hearts. We could not have existence and meaning apart from the existence and meaning of God. All this is the road from God to us. (The Defense of the Faith, p. 40)

Now it’s not exactly clear to me what statements like this are supposed to mean. The term ‘meaning’ here is being used in a most idiosyncratic manner so far as I can tell, one which apologists routinely take for granted and tend not to explain. Regardless, it is apparent that this pronouncement – that “we [Van Til presumably has all human beings in mind here] could not have… meaning apart from… God” – is not intended to be complimentary to non-Christians and the philosophical positions open to them given their non-belief in the Christian god.

What is noteworthy about such pronouncements is that, as Van Til’s quote exemplifies, they are typically made without any argument whatsoever. Apologists seem to believe that it is sufficient for them to simply assert that “meaning” depends on their god, and apparently this alleged truth is supposed to be self-evident once it’s been pointed out. But Van Til did claim that he could demonstrate this. In his pamphlet Particularism and Common Grace, Van Til writes:

Yet we can show negatively that unless the objector will drop his objections and stand with us upon the Scriptures of God and hold with us to the God of the Scriptures there is no meaning to his experience.

Unfortunately, in spite of this chest-pounding, I have been unable to find where Van Til in fact shows that disbelieving the claims of Christianity and being convinced of certain objections against it result in one’s experience having no “meaning.” Again, it seems that we are left with mere assertions at this point.

Van Til does not seem to be saying that, without belief in the Christian god the non-believer has no experience at all. Rather, he seems to be allowing that non-believers do in fact have experience in spite of their non-belief, but that this experience has no meaning, that his experience is real, but nonetheless meaningless. But this is a strange statement to make. In fact, it seems that “meaning” is simply the wrong term to be used here. If it is allowed that the non-believer has experience, then it would have to be admitted that the non-believer’s experience at least has identity; otherwise, this allowance would seem to be self-contradictory: how could something be said to exist and included in the denotation of a category (‘experience’) and yet that thing admitted to exist is also said to have no identity? What, then, would justify including it in the denotation of the concept ‘experience’? And if it is admitted that the non-believer’s experience has identity (which the apologist would be forced to admit, if he admits that the non-believer does in fact experience things), then what is to prevent the non-believer from identifying his experience, especially if he is conscious and possesses the faculty needed to identify things? Only at this point, once the non-believer has begun to identify his experience in conceptual form, would concern over “meaning” seem to be appropriate. But at this point it's too late for the apologist, for he has already conceded the fundamentals which the non-believer needs to meaningfully identify and understand his experience.

This is because, technically speaking, meaning is a property of concepts and symbols. That is, meaning is epistemological, not metaphysical. But Van Til is clearly using the concept ‘meaning’ as if it applied directly to metaphysical phenomena. Typically one does not pick up a rock from the ground and say “what does this rock mean?” The rock simply exists, and is not a symbol for something else. Only with the addition of an enormous context of prior mental integrations can an informed individual (such as a geologist) take his discovery of the rock and its location to make inferences about, for example, what its composition is, where it came from, how it got there, etc.

So I question the conceptual validity of what Van Til is saying to begin with. It seems, rather, that Van Til and others who make the charge that non-believer’s experience is meaningless would be better off saying something like, “without God one’s experience has no purpose,” or “without God one’s experience has no value” or “without God one’s experience has no importance.” Either of these alternatives would make the charge clearer, and thus give all parties something more substantial to consider. The charge that “without God one’s experience has no meaning” is simply too vague for its own good, and suggests that the apologist is simply confused on what he is trying to say.

So let’s consider these other alternatives, assuming that they are more accurate in interpreting the apologists’ accusation.

The latter two variants – “without God one’s experience has no value” and “without God one’s experience has no importance” – are easily dispatched.

The Concept of Value

Consider the first claim: “Without God one’s experience has no value.” Whenever the concept ‘value’ is invoked like this, it is needful to ask: “of value to whom?” For the concept ‘value’ presupposes someone capable of valuing whatever object is in question (in this case, a human being's experience). This claim ultimately assumes that the only one who can value a human being's experience is not the human being who has the experience, but a deity which vicariously observes a human being's experiences. Van Til's claim seems to be that, if this deity does not exist, then there’s no one to value the experiences which the non-believer has in his life. But why should anyone accept such a claim? I have found no argument in the apologetic literature which defends this assumption (which is not surprising), but I think there are good reasons to reject it. For one, there are good reasons to suppose that a human being who experiences things in life is fully capable of valuing his own experiences. If this is the case, then clearly it would be wrong to say that his experiences have no value. If a human being values his own experience, what would be the basis for someone else to say that experience has no value at all? It may be the case that those making such claims do not have a very good understanding of what values are in the first place. So again, it is important to define our terms.

Value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. It should be easy to understand why human beings are capable of valuing things (including their own experiences in life). Human beings are biological organisms, and as such they face a fundamental alternative: to live or die. The life of any biological organism (including human beings) is conditional: they are not immortal, indestructible, eternally existing phenomena. In order to live, for instance, a man must act in order to acquire those values which his life, by virtue of its delicate conditionality, requires. His values are not automatically given to him. He needs to act in order to acquire things like food, water, shelter, happiness (which, as an incentive to continue living, is a most profound value), etc. If he does not act, he will not have food to eat, water to drink, shelter to protect him from the elements, etc., and he will die. I’ve never met a living Christian who does not act in order to procure those values which make his life possible. So even Christians should recognize this basic nature of the concept ‘value’. The point here is that we are capable of valuing things because we consciously face a fundamental alternative. If we did not face this fundamental alternative, we would be like rocks in the earth: having no need to act in order to achieve values.

So if it is granted that the non-believer is in fact a human being, then it is granted that he is a biological organism consciously facing a fundamental alternative, namely life vs. death. And if this is granted, then it is also granted that, if the non-believer wants to live (a choice he alone can make for himself), then he has no choice about the facts that he needs certain values in order to live, and that he must take those actions necessary to achieve those values. This all means, and incontestably so, that the non-believer is capable of valuing his own experience in life, for it is through his experience in life that he learns how to hone his abilities to achieve those values which his life requires, given its conditional nature.

Moreover, it is questionable at best to suppose that the Christian god could value anything at all, let alone someone else’s experiences. Unlike biological organisms (such as human beings), the Christian god is said to be immortal, indestructible, eternally existing, impervious to harm. The Christian god has no physical body whose skin can be lacerated or whose bones can be broken, whose organs can become diseased or whose heart can stop. It does not need food, it does not need water, it does not need to shelter itself from the elements, it does not need any incentive to continue existing, because it cannot die and does not need motivation to take actions necessary to allow it to continue existing. The Christian god, given what Christianity claims about its nature, could simply sit on its hands for all eternity in unending idleness, and still be what it is. It would have no reason to be anything but utterly indifferent to anything else that exists. In short, it would have no metaphysical basis for valuing anything at all, which can only mean that the theist has no objective basis for assuming that it does value anything at all. And Christian soteriology implicitly concedes this point: the Christian god has no onus to save anyone, but does so out of purely arbitrary choice (cf. Psalms 115:3). So when the theist assumes that his god values anything, that his god is the basis of values, or that his god’s existence is a precondition for anyone else valuing anything, he is committing the fallacy of the stolen concept, which invalidates such pronouncements. (For more in depth argument on behalf of these points, see Anton Thorn’s article Why an Immortal Being Cannot Value.)

Therefore, it is indefensible to assert that the non-believer’s experience in life, given his non-belief in the Christian god, has no value. The non-believer can certainly value his own experience, and it is nonsensical to suppose that the Christian god is needed for the non-believer’s experience to have value, given the inherent fallaciousness of such suppositions.

The Concept of Importance

Essentially the same point can be made against the claim that the non-believer’s experience, given his non-belief in the Christian god, has no importance. Again we must ask the question: importance to whom? The above points about the non-believer’s nature as a biological organism conscious of his own fundamental choice between life and death, make it clear that he is capable of considering his own experiences important (they’re certainly important to himself), for the very reason he considers it valuable: it is from his experience that he can develop his skills at values-achievement and life-preservation. Additionally, we can ask: why would the Christian god be needed to give the non-believer’s experience importance? The Christian god certainly would not find the non-believer’s experience important for any reason. Indeed, according to the Christian storybook, the bible, the Christian god need not hesitate in annihilating any human life it wants to destroy, regardless of whether he believes or not. According to the sacred writings of Christianity, the Christian god “destroyeth the perfect and the wicked” (Job 9:22), and “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt. 5:45). Why would the Christian god hesitate to carry out its destructive wrath on anyone? It has nothing to lose by destroying human beings, and has nothing to gain by protecting their lives. So on what basis would the Christian god place any importance on any human being's experience? Blank out.

Now the Christian apologist could respond to all this and say that, when the non-believer values his own experience or considers his experience important to his life, this simply does not count. In other words, he can simply deny that this has any relevance or significance in the context of what he charges against the non-believer. But this would constitute an autobiographical statement: not only does he find it necessary to deny relevant facts, his denial indicates his own lack of value for other human beings – i.e., for things which actually do exist – in preference of something which he can only imagine. If the Christian finds it so easy to dismiss the non-believer’s ability to value and the relevance this ability has in consideration of his apologetic accusations, then the non-believer should find it just as easy to dismiss the apologist’s baseless charges and stolen concepts. Indeed, the non-believer would have full justification for doing so, given the fallacies identified above.

The Concept of Purpose

Now Van Til or his followers could of course rephrase his charge to say that the non-believer’s experience, given his non-belief in the Christian god, serves no purpose. This is in line with the assumption commonly made by defenders of Christianity, that without the existence of the Christian god, nothing could have any purpose at all. On this view, the Christian god’s existence is a precondition for any purpose whatsoever. Such a view seems to stem from the supposition that there must be an “ultimate” or “absolute” purpose to everything comprehensively (i.e., to the entire universe) in order for any particular activity or thing to have a purpose. Along these lines, Van Til tells us that

there must be a comprehensive purpose with history if there is purpose anywhere in history. Without a comprehensive purpose, every act of purpose on the part of man would be set in a void. And if there must be absolute purpose, it goes without saying that all the evil must one day be abolished. All unrighteousness will one day have to be punished. God will accomplish his purpose with the universe, or he would not be God. (Introduction to Systematic Theology, chapter 9, section B)

What Van Til gives us here is, at best, an argument from (presumably) undesirable consequences. Who wants to suppose that any purposeful act he engages is “set in a void”? Well, according to Van Til’s claim here, if you want to suppose that your choices and actions have any grander purpose than the immediate moment, then you need to frame your purposes within the context of “a comprehensive purpose,” and this can only be achieved by considering the individual's activity in the larger context of "history" (i.e., something for which no single individual is exclusively responsible), which relegates any individual's actions to a mere passing ingredient in a conglomerate of historical events. To have any purpose at all, one's choices and actions need to be in line with something that transcends any individual's experience. According to such a view, every individual must see himself as a servant to a summary whole which by definition is beyond his own life, something he can never see but can only imagine, something that can at best one day be recorded in history books, written well after the fact by persons who onstensively would not be participants in said history. Such criteria can only be achieved on the basis of Christian theism, since allegely only on the basis of Christian theism can such overarching intensions be possible.

There is a hint of truth hidden behind all this, but it is not what Van Til would have us believe. Van Til would have us believe that human activity could only be purposive if it is set within the context of the “comprehensive purpose” which the Christian god allegedly has for all of human history as a whole. The hint of truth here is that one’s particular actions do need a context broader than each individual action to roll them up into a systematic whole. But this context is already provided by man’s nature as a biological organism. What Van Til is denying here is man's inherent individualism; man's life cannot have any purpose unless he is part of a collective effort whose significance extends well beyond his individual contributions to that effort. This is how the Christian conception of purpose is inherently collective in nature: it views the human individual as simply a cog in a wheel vastly larger than any individual's own life, a wheel to whose purposeless turning he must devote his existence.
Notice how the hysteria of such prescriptions is so easy to repudiate: Since purpose is properly understood as goal-oriented endeavor, the metaphysical basis for man’s purpose is the conditionality of his life qua biological organism. Specifically, then, purpose for man is inherently related to his need for values. Since values are those things which one acts to gain and/or keep, purpose is the “conscious goal-orientedness in every aspect of one’s existence where choice applies” (Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 298). Thus the concept of ‘value’ is integral to the concept of ‘purpose’. It is here, in the concept of ‘value’, that we must look for the “comprehensive purpose” which gives an individual’s specific choices and actions the systematic relevance which Van Til mistakenly attributes to his theistic paradigm.

As we learned above, the bases of man’s values are the facts that he, as a biological organism, faces a fundamental alternative: to live or die, and that living his life depends on his achievement of certain values which make his life possible. This summary goal – to live – is the comprehensive purpose which provides an individual with the necessary context for the specific choices and actions which he makes. Balancing my checkbook, for instance, is not an end in itself; it serves a larger purpose, namely to keep me abreast of those transferable values which I do possess and have at my disposal. Transferable values of course are of value because I can exchange them for other values which my life requires, such as to purchase food, to pay my mortgage, to keep current with my electric bill, etc. So the mere act of balancing my checkbook, far from being “set in a void” (i.e., performed apart from some larger context which provides its results with value), does in fact serve a larger purpose, a purpose outlined by my need for values, a need which I have given my nature as a biological being. Purpose, then, contrary to what religion teaches, is in fact concurrent with biology: the actions of a biological organism are, generally speaking, summarily organized by its inherent need for values. (There are, of course, exceptions to this, in the case of irrational human beings; however, these are not counterexamples which disprove the rule, but rather exceptions which in fact prove the rule: if a human being does not govern his actions rationally, he is apt to destroy those values which his life requires.)

But clearly a god possessing the characteristics ascribed to it by Christian theism, could have no use for balancing a checkbook. Given the points which I have secured above about the Christian god not needing any values to begin with, whether or not any and every checkbook which has ever existed were balanced, the Christian god – given its attributes of immortality, indestructibility, eternality, imperviousness to harm, etc. – would not be affected by it in the slightest. The theist may or may not grant this, but surely he would need an argument for denying this. Would his god, in the end case, need any checkbook to be balanced? If so, why? I thought the Christian god had no needs. Why all of a sudden would it have a need for someone’s checkbook to be balanced? What purpose would it serve, and why would that purpose need to be met?

I raised similar questions in my debate with a presuppositionalists who (ironically) calls himself “Truthseeker,” in the comments section of this blog. In our exchange, Truthseeker asserted (without argument) that “Ayn Rand and her disciples have a faulty understanding of concepts.” When I inquired about this, I had asked Truthseeker what he understands a concept to be, and what he thinks its purpose is. There’s that ugly word: “purpose.” Supposedly non-Christians are not supposed to invoke it for fear of conceding the whole farm to the Christian theist. Truthseeker did not give an answer to this question, but instead sought to redirect our discussion, asking “When you ask what it's purpose is, do you believe it has purpose?” Truthseeker would have to be stupid to suppose that I didn’t think concepts served a purpose, and I don’t think he’s stupid. So this question seemed rather baiting to me. And of course I think concepts serve a purpose, specifically a purpose suited to man’s consciousness – i.e., a consciousness which is neither omniscient nor infallible, as I explain in my blog Would an Omniscient Mind Have Knowledge in Conceptual Form?.

Now Truthseeker had stated that, “For my worldview looking into yours I really can’t see purpose.” Of course, Truthseeker does not explain what exactly he’s looking for in order to find purpose in my worldview. So I explained that purpose, as my worldview understands it, has to do with goal-orientation. In response to this, Truthseeker interviewed me on the topic with a series of questions, which I answered, and which I quote here:

Truthseeker: “Who organized these goals?”

In the case of autonomic biological functions (such as the digestive processes of an ameba, the beating of a heart, etc.), no one did. The goal-directedness of biological functions is inherent in biology as such. Life is conditional, and the goal of these functions is to preserve an organism’s life. They were not put in place by some magic worker. Contrast biological functions to a rock rolling down a hill. The rock has no goals; its existence does not require goal-directed activity. It just rolls until it comes to a stop. It can sit in one place for years and years and still be what it is, a rock. But when it comes to biological organisms, we’re dealing with entities which face a fundamental alternative: life vs. death. This fundamental alternative is the ultimate goal-setter for living organisms. Goal-directedness, or purpose in the broader sense, is concurrent with biology. An entity which faces no fundamental alternative of life vs. death would have no basis for one goal as opposed to any other goal. (Incidentally, this is why ascribing “purpose” to the Christian god commits the fallacy of the stolen concept.)

Truthseeker: “Who gives things purpose?”

Notice that your first two questions about “purpose” presuppose that [it is] assigned by an entity possessing consciousness (a “who”). The answer to your present question depends on what things we are talking about. I don’t think rocks exist for a purpose; they simply exist. They are part of the metaphysical given. As for biological organisms, as I pointed out above, purpose (or goal-directedness of self-initiated actions, including autonomic functions) is concurrent with biology, given the fundamental alternative (life vs. death, existence vs. non-existence) which they face. In the case of man-made objects, like paper, scissors, stereos, computers, skyscrapers, etc., their creators and users give them their purpose. Typically human beings give these things the purpose of helping them live and enjoy their lives. Again, no need to point to some invisible magic being to understand purpose.

Truthseeker: “How do you account for purpose and goal-orientation in you worldview?”

It’s not always clear what a Christian means by “account for” in such interrogations (since appealing to an invisible magic being settles the question in his mind). But I think the points I gave above will give you some indication of what I mean by purpose and its metaphysical basis. For more insight, I would suggest Dr. Harry Binswanger’s book, The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts. By “teleological concepts” Binswanger has in mind things like goal, purpose, end, etc., and he argues in this book quite clearly how these concepts have (as the title suggests) a biological basis (as opposed to a storybook basis, for instance).

Truthseeker: “Again I don’t see any purpose or goals standing from your worldview shoes just things that happen with no intelligence behind them.”

I don’t think you’re “standing from [in?] [my] worldview shoes” to begin with, if all this needs to be explained to you, as these points are pretty basic in Objectivism. I suspect you’re standing in your worldview’s shoes looking for what your worldview conceives “purpose” to be, which you have not stated for the record. It’s clear that your concept of purpose is underwritten by the primacy of consciousness, which is why you probably think there’s no conceptual problem in ascribing purpose to your god. But as I indicated above, the presence of a stolen concept at the root of one’s view of something invalidates that view in toto.

If purpose is generally conceived as the goal-oriented action of biological organisms (especially in the case of consciously chosen actions which man initiates), then clearly we have an objective basis for this concept, namely the facts relevant to meeting the conditions of life set by the nature of the specific organism in question (such as man’s need for values). According to Objectivism, man does in fact have an ultimate purpose, and that purpose is to live and to enjoy his life. It is this ultimate purpose which provide an objective summary context for all his choices and actions. Apologists who say that they cannot “see” purpose in the Objectivist worldview may be suffering from self-inflicted blindness.

The Christian may not like Objectivism’s conception of man’s purpose, but his dislikes do not constitute a refutation. Nor can he deny the fact that this is a goal for which any normal human individual may strive. While Christians can be expected to malign this conception of man’s purpose as providing justification for vicious social behavior such as rape or murder (activities which have not been identified as condoned), they in fact actually reject this proposal, not because it will lead to unethical behavior, but because it is too obviously selfish, allowing an individual to make himself the primary beneficiary of his own actions instead of the Christian god. Underlying the Christians’ objections is a false dichotomy: either man surrenders his life and mind to the Christian god, or he rapes and murders others. It never seems to cross their mind that men are fully capable of governing themselves in a manner which allows them to achieve and preserve their values without infringing anyone else’s right to do the same, even though the vast majority of individuals do just this. Ultimately, Christians want men to treat their god as the primary beneficiary of their actions, even though it is incoherent to suppose that the deity which they describe could benefit from anything in the first place. They would prefer that men hold as their supreme purpose their own sacrifice to the Christian god, which demands man’s sacrifice but would have no need for it in the first place. At any rate, to live and enjoy one’s life is undeniably a lifelong goal-oriented project, and thus satisfies man’s requirement for a comprehensive purpose. If the Christian objects to this by saying one’s life is unimportant and therefore unworthy of life-long effort to preserve and adore, he is telling us about his own values hierarchy, specifically that he sees other individuals as ultimately worthless and consequently as merely disposable lumps of flesh. The Christian’s objections to man considering his own life as an end in itself also seems to conflict with the broader motivations which any believer would naturally have for putting his hopes in the notion of eternal salvation. Would he be so eager to defend his god-beliefs if he believed that he would spend the afterlife broiling lake of fire, in spite of his devotion to his god? Believers often carry on as if service to their god were their ultimate goal, but it seems that eternal security from death is really what it’s all about. Isn’t this just as selfish (albeit irrationally so) as enjoying one's life on earth as an end in itself?

Furthermore, as I pointed out to Truthseeker, to attribute purpose to the Christian god and its actions is, because of the characteristics which Christianity ascribes to its god, a fine example of the fallacy of the stolen concept on display. Since purpose presupposes the conditionality of biological life, a non-biological entity would have no objective basis for governing its actions purposefully. This would be all the more true in the case of the Christian god, for reasons identified above: since it does not face the fundamental alternative of life vs. death, its continued existence would not depend on achieving certain values, and thus it would have no basis for goal-oriented action. For instance, while man must procure for himself food and refrain from stepping into the path of oncoming locomotives, the Christian god does not need food to begin with, and cannot be harmed by collisions with speeding vehicles. This can only mean that it is conceptually incoherent for Christians to point to their god as the standard of purpose, or to claim that their god's existence is the precondition of purpose. The precondition of purposeful action is in fact the conditional nature of biological existence. Without the fundamental conditions of biological existence, there would be no basis or need for goal-oriented action.

As for what Christians say about the purpose of man’s life, any brief examination of their position will reveal it to be an unending wild goose chase, taking the form of a series of arbitrary goals and unproductive duties which keep the believer psychologically distracted. When asked, for instance, what the purpose of concepts are according to his Christian worldview’s theory of concepts (a theory which he never laid out), Truthseeker answered:

The purpose would be to function and interact with God's creation.

When asked what would be the purpose of “functioning and interacting with God’s creation,” Truthseeker answered:

To be created beings made in Gods [sic] image and likeness.

But what would be the purpose of being “created beings made in Gods image and likeness”? Truthseeker’s answer:

If we were not functional we would not be made in the image and likeness of God and we would not be able to rule over the earth.

But again, this too does not identify an end in itself: What would be the purpose of ruling over the earth? And round and round we go. Given such answers (and these are not atypical by any means), one gets the impression that “purpose” for the Christian consists in performing ancillary chores for an invisible magic being which, given its alleged omnipotence, could accomplish whatever goals they supposedly satisfy by simply commanding that it be done. I suspect that Truthseeker and any other Christian would continue this charade indefinitely without ever identifying an ultimate purpose, an end in itself, which would provide all these incidental tasks they point to with a comprehensive context in which they would “make sense.” Unless they can do this, their claim that purpose “makes sense” in their worldview rings ever hollow. In my interview with Truthseeker, he provided nothing which would qualify as an end in itself (such as man’s enjoyment of life is in the Objectivist worldview). In fact, it seems that such an idea couldn’t be further from their worldview’s teachings. According to the New Testament, “the first and great commandment” for men to obey is “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Mt. 22:37-38). But why would one need to do this? Blank out. The second commandment is: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Mt. 22:39). Again, why would one need to do this? Blank out again. Is the concern to please the Christian god? Again we must ask: why do this? What end would this serve? Is the Christian god unhappy? If so, it is said to be an eternally unchanging being, so if it is unhappy, it is eternally unhappy, for it cannot change. Does the believer think that his obedience to such purposeless commandments is going to have an impact on the mood of an eternally unchanging, transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient and infinite being? And non-believers are called “arrogant”?

In all honesty, I do not think I am in any way misrepresenting Christianity here by probing its conception of purpose for man’s life. Again, I see nothing which comes close to an ultimate purpose for man, unless of course the his ultimate purpose is to play the role of a pawn and eventually sacrifice himself. But as I indicated above, this does not cohere with Christianity’s promise of the reward of salvation (cf. Mt. 5:12: “for great is your reward in heaven”), which is dangled before the believer as the final prize for his devotion (cf. Mt. 16:27: “For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works”).

Now if the Christian responds to all this and says, “Well, it’s ultimately for your own good that you do what God has commanded,” then we’re getting somewhere. In fact, whether he realizes it or not, the Christian admitting this is tacitly validating the very selfishness of Objectivism’s conception of man’s purpose which Christians typically (and are confessionally expected to) resent. But then it’s a matter of rational consistency: man’s life is conditional in nature; if he does not take the actions necessary to achieve those values which his life requires, he will die. The inherent selfishness of one's attendance to this fact is imperative. By contrast, the Christian god is said to be eternal, immortal, indestructible, impervious to harm, completely free from any needs whatsoever such that it does not face the fundamental alternative of life vs. death that man faces. So why would anyone need to do anything on behalf of such a deity, and why would anyone need to abandon his own need for values in order to please it? The Christian worldview fails to answer these fundamental questions, and in fact plays a shell game with the concept of purpose such that the believer is left groping for answers when he is asked to provide a reason for the hope he claims to have (so much for I Peter 3:15!). For Christians to turn around and claim that non-Christian worldviews are incapable of providing man with "meaning" in life is the epitome of hypocrisy and absurdity.

by Dawson Bethrick