Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Reply to Matthias on Objective Knowledge vs. the Subjectivism of Theism

This is the fourth installment of a series of replies I’ve been writing in response to a comment (yes, I know, just one comment) posted on my blog Confessions of a Vantillian Subjectivist by Matthias McMahon of the blog Choosing Hats. While I realize that four rather long posts in reply to a single comment left on one of my older blog entries may seem to some as a bit “over the top,” I caution readers not to think I’m finished with this yet. There will be more – at least one, maybe two... who knows! As I read Matthias’ comment and examined the surrounding issues, so many important points have come to mind, and what better than to develop them and share them with my readers here at my blog?

In the present entry I take up the portion of Matthias’ comment where he sought to explain the varying degrees of knowledge between different knowers in an attempt to defend the view that man’s knowledge is somehow “analogous” to the “knowledge” Christianity claims its god possesses. In my blog Confessions of a Vantillian Subjectivist, I argued essentially that, given the objectivity of man’s proper knowledge (acquired and validated by means of looking outward at reality) as opposed to the overt subjectivism which Christianity attributes to its god (whose objects of “knowledge” are products of its own “thinking” – instancing the looking inward model of “knowing”), there can be nothing either metaphysically or epistemologically analogous between the two.

This is because there can at root be nothing analogous between
(a) knowing by means of looking outward at objects which exist independent of one’s conscious activity, discovering them as objects which are not already pre-known, examining them by perceptual means, and identifying and integrating them by means of concepts (which condense a limitless categories of data into a single unit so that man can retain it, given the finite nature of his consciousness); and 
(b) “knowing” objects by means of looking inward at the contents of one’s own consciousness (which is already omniscient – i.e., already knows everything and thus cannot learn more), creating objects from that internal content by means of some type of conscious activity which we have never observed and can only imagine, retaining the ability to alter the identity of those objects at any time by a similar act of will, and lacking any need to condense entire categories of data into single units in order to retain it in consciousness, etc.
I hope to bring out some of the implications of this fundamental antithesis between how man knows and what could only be the case for the Christian god given Christianity’s descriptions of it, in the following interaction with Matthias’ comments.

In my blog, I wrote:
The only correlativity between man's knowledge and the Christian god's alleged 'knowledge,' is that, in the case of the believer as it is supposed to be in the case of his god, the subject holds primacy over the objects of consciousness: the Christian god wishes its objects into existence, and the believer wishes his god-belief into “the Truth.”
In his comment, Matthias attempted to wrestle with this as follows:
Here's one attempt at demonstrating the relation between a subject and its objects to varying degrees: A person (A) who is familiar with the make and model of a car does truly know about the car, but less about it than the person who has read about and is familiar with the type of engine and all the parts that make the car up. That person (B) will know less about the car than the person who machined the individual parts and put them all together in place. And, stay with me here, but even that person (C) knows less than the person (Z) who authored the concepts “car,” “car parts,” “carburetor,” “machining,” assuming arguendo there is such a person.  
Not only does (B) know more about the car than (A); but he knows it more fully, and so in a qualitatively different way. There is an analogous relation between (B) and (A). Same relation exists still between the auto machinist extraordinaire and the author of the concepts to begin with. It’s an actual, non-ad hoc difference. The author of the concepts knows what the machinist knows in addition to what he knows, himself. In that sense they all have similar knowledge. As long as we understand that “similar” doesn’t mean “utterly equal.” Christians use (or should use) “similar” and “analogy” with that proviso. In fact, “analogy” entails “lack of utter equivalence.”
Notice that in each case (save perhaps “person (Z),” which I discuss below), Matthias is talking about the respective quantity of knowledge each knower has about an object. Person (A) has N amount of knowledge about the car; person (B) has N+ amount of knowledge of the car; and person (C) has N++ amount of knowledge about the car. The differences here are in terms of quantity of knowledge about the same object (or type of object) while the fundamentals of the subject-object relationship can still be the same. In each case, person (A), person (B) and person (C), the car exists and is what it is independently of the conscious intensions of the knower, and the knower acquires knowledge about the car by looking outward at reality, discovering things about the car by some means (whether working with the car as a finished product, reading literature about the car, building certain parts of the car, etc.).

Recall now the view affirmed by the Christian Mike Warren as quoted in my blog Confessions of a Vantillian Subjectivist. Warren stated:
Everything about the flower originates from His own consciousness. Indeed, God's thinking about the flower makes it so. In contrast, humans know the flower as something originating external to them. Their thinking about the flower does not make it so. Human knowledge claims about the flower can be incorrect, unlike God's perfect knowledge.
Compare this with what Bahnsen writes (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 243):
God’s thoughts make the world what it is and determine what happens
How this would essentially be any different from “wishing makes it so” is beyond me. The views that “God’s thoughts make the world what it is and determine what happens,” “God’s thinking about the flower makes it so,” and “wishing makes it so” all hinge on the same orientation between the subject of consciousness and its objects, i.e., the primacy of the subject over its objects. This is as clear a case of metaphysical subjectivism as one could ever hope to find.

Notice, however, the fundamental contrasts between the metaphysical subjectivism affirmed on behalf of the Christian god, and the orientation between the subject and its objects entailed in man’s knowledge of things in reality. In the case of person (A), person (B) and person (C) above, the car (the object of knowledge) is not something that originates from the knower’s consciousness; their thinking about the car does not “make it so.” On the contrary, the car is something that exists external to each knower; specifically it exists and is what it is independent of their conscious activity. Each knower had to discover the facts they identified about the car in order to know it by looking outward and applying an objective process of identification and integration, courtesy of reason. Moreover, each knower can be incorrect in their identifications of the car or some aspect of it; they can make a mistake, which again is another reason why we need reason. Thus in the case of person (A), person (B) and person (C), the same fundamental relationship between consciousness and its objects obtains for each, namely the primacy of existence: the object of consciousness holds metaphysical primacy over the subject of consciousness. The differences between their knowledge (person (A), person (B) and person (C)) lie not only in the quantity of their knowledge of the car, but also in the context of their respective experiences with the car (e.g., person (A) knows the car through his experience of purchasing it from an auto-dealer in Kansas City and driving it in his neighborhood and to work every day; person (B) knows the car through his experience of preparing for an interview with the company that manufactures them; and person (C) knows the car through his experience of working on the assembly line which manufactures them, etc.).

But none of these examples of knowing an object are at all analogous to the vantage which Christianity describes its god enjoying in regard to objects of its consciousness. Persons (A), (B) and (C) are not said to have “thought” the car into existence; they did not look inward in order to “know” the car; it is not the case that the car does not exist independent of their conscious activity – it does exist independent of their conscious activity, and they can choose to identify and integrate what they perceive of the car, or ignore it. But if they choose to identify and integrate what they perceive of the car, they are still not infallible – the car does not conform to their subjective intensions. They must employ an objective method of knowledge acquisition, without which they will not acquire knowledge about the car or anything else. This is because the car does not conform to their conscious intensions (as Christians claim objects do in reaction to their god’s conscious activity), but rather their conscious activity must conform to the object as they discover it in the world using an objective standard, i.e., reason.

Now in regard to Matthias’ “person (Z)” which is said to have “authored the concepts ‘car’, ‘car parts’, ‘carburetor’, ‘machining’,” etc., presumably he intends this to correspond to his god – a being from whose consciousness the objects of reality originate and to whose conscious dictates the objects of reality conform. But the notion that any one mind is responsible for “authoring” concepts on behalf of other minds strikes me as quite peculiar and simply untrue. In fact, I don’t think it does justice at all to how the human mind forms concepts. It is clear that each individual human being must form his or her own concepts on the basis of firsthand interaction with the world. We all form our own concepts. No one can come along and force their conceptualizations into another person’s mind. If that were possible, we wouldn’t need to send our children to schools; we wouldn’t even need to speak or write in order to communicate to other people. Even when one individual (for example, a parent) has already formed a vast quantity of concepts that another individual has not formed (such as his child), while the one can teach the other about specific objects or even classes of objects, the other will still have to perform the process of concept-formation for his own sum of knowledge. We do not read people’s minds, nor do we acquire conceptual knowledge by means of anemnesis, through revelations from supernatural beings, or by personal fiat.

Since it’s clear that each human mind begins tabula rasa, each human being must start from scratch and build his own sum of knowledge by his own effort. We do not have the technology to plug into a database and download pre-bundled sets of knowledge into our minds. (Though perhaps one day there will be such technology?) I personally had to form my own concepts ‘car’, ‘part’, ‘carburetor’, ‘machining’, etc., through my own mental effort. There is no shortcut here.

Another important point is the fact that the things which we find in the world are not caused or “brought into being” by the conceptualization process. Such a view would constitute a fundamental reversal. On the contrary, things exist independent of conscious activity (including conceptualization) and, once we acquire awareness of those things, we are able to form concepts on the basis of what we discover about those things. In other words, concepts are formed, not in a vacuum, but on the basis of objective input. The order here is that objects exist first, and then concepts identifying and integrating those objects are formed on the basis of what is discovered by an objective process about those objects. This would be completely contrary to the notion of an all-powerful deity which simply creates things into existence or has “authored” concepts prior to the objects which they subsume existing.

Also, given the descriptions Christianity has for its god, it’s hard to see how the Christian god could be said to have “authored” any concepts to begin with. The Christian god is said to be omniscient as well as unchanging for all eternity. I have already produced argumentation concluding that an omniscient mind would not have its knowledge (if we could call it that) in the form of concepts to begin with (see my blog Would an Omniscient Mind Have Knowledge in Conceptual Form?). Moreover, the concept ‘authored’ indicates an action which results in some product (in this case, “the concepts ‘car’, ‘car parts’, ‘carburetor’, ‘machining’,”); but the Christian god is supposed to have been omniscient for all eternity. This means that the “knowledge” that it has stored up in its mind has always been there; it has not been added to, it has not increased, it has not changed. Of course, this could only mean that the Christian god did not perform any kind of action which resulted in its “knowledge” increasing in any way. In other words, it has not learned because it cannot learn. Thus the Christian god, given the descriptions with which Christianity informs it, did not “author” any knowledge. Consequently, to whatever extent that the Christian god has any “knowledge,” it had no choice about this; it is not the result of some chosen course of action on its part; it’s just by chance that it happens to have whatever “knowledge” it is said to have.

And of course, since it is supposed to be immortal, eternal, indestructible, in need of nothing and incapable of being deprived in any way, it would have no objective purpose for whatever “knowledge” it is said to have. It does not need any values to begin with (since it does not face the fundamental alternative of life vs. death), so it would not need to identify what is a value and what is a threat. Also, since it would not need to act in order to achieve values or avoid threats (it could sit completely idle for all eternity and it would still be what it is, completely unchanged and unchanging), it would not need to identify any course of action. Thus it would not need knowledge for any of these things. Any “knowledge” it is said to have would be objectively useless as well as purposeless.

All of these points consistently underscore the same conclusions, namely:
(a) that the Christian god’s “knowledge” would be ultimately subjective in nature (since it would not be based on facts which obtain independently of the Christian god’s conscious activity; it is said to create all objects distinct from itself by an act of will – i.e., by means of conscious activity); and 
(b) Christianity commits the fallacy of the stolen concept when applying the concept ‘knowledge’ to their god.
These crucial distinctions between human knowers on the one hand and the Christian god on the other, are not brought out into the fore in Matthias’ attempt to demonstrate the relationship between the subject of knowledge and its objects in the above examples. At best they are downplayed if not completely buried under more incidental differences (e.g., person (B) knows more about the car than person (A) and so on). By person (Z), I suspect Matthias really has in mind a consciousness, not which “authors concepts,” but which creates its own objects by an act of consciousness - i.e., the primacy of the subject in the subject-object relationship. Obviously this is a difference of a fundamental nature between the Christian god on the one hand and human knowers on the other. I have pointed out for many years that Christianity’s description of its god and its entire metaphysics fundamentally entail subjectivism - i.e., the primacy of the subject in the subject-object relationship. Some years ago after several bouts of discussion and debating, Christian apologist Paul Manata finally confessed in a discussion with me that, according to Christianity’s teachings:
...in theism, there’s a sense in which reality is subjective - based on the divine mind
(for details, see my blog Theism and Subjective Metaphysics).

How is it, then, that theists who resist acknowledging the subjectivism inherent in their god-belief do in fact demonstrate stubborn reluctance to admit this about their worldview while at the same time insisting on things such as “God’s thoughts make the world what it is and determine what happens” (Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 243), “God controls whatsoever comes to pass” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 160), “every fact is what it is because God has said it is what it is” (Chris Bolt, “Redemption in Apologetics,” The Portable Presuppositionalist, p. 162), etc.?

Here’s another example from fellow Choosing Hats blogger “Nextor” writes (in his blog entry Revelation from a keypad):
Why is water always wet? Why can’t a dog be a cat? Because God has determined that a those things have particular attributes, relationships to other facts, and has a particular identity.
But is water always water? Not if the ruling consciousness wishes otherwise. In John chapter 2, we read how Jesus wished water into wine. The ruling consciousness just wishes, and voilà, like magic, what was water is now wine. It is clear according to Christianity that we are to believe that the things which we find in reality by looking outward (such as water, and everything else we find in the world) entirely depends on the Christian god’s conscious activity. In fact, Christian apologists often tell us that their god not only “created” the universe by an act of will, but also “sustains” it by conscious activity as well. On the Christian view, then, water is water because the Christian god wills it that way; water continues to be water because the Christian god wills it that way; water becomes wine (or anything else) because the Christian god wills it that way. Throughout Christianity we continually come back to essentially one form or another of wishing makes it so.

In spite of this overt subjectivism thriving throughout the theistic worldview, theists seem to think they can get away with calling their worldview “objectively true.” And yet, since they begin with their god as their starting point, claiming that it existed prior to everything else in existence (it is said to have created everything else, e.g., the universe, heaven, hell, angels, demons, etc., etc., by an act of will), the theist’s worldview essentially begins with a condition of subjectivism as its metaphysical starting point. Before anything else existed, this supernatural consciousness with the power to create its own objects by an act of will (i.e., by looking inward and magically transforming what it finds there into tangible concretes that exist independent of itself) was existing presumably all by its lonesome. In such a state, it could not have had any objective standard according to which it might guide its creative processes, since it was entirely guided by looking inward into the contents of itself as a subject of consciousness. There would be no independently existing constraints limiting its actions in any way. As Greg Bahnsen tells us:
Very simply, according to the Biblical witness: “The Lord God omnipotent reigneth” (Rev. 19:6). Therefore, in terms of the Christian worldview, there is nothing “too hard” for God to do according to His own holy will (Gen. 18:14). Because of who He is, “with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26; cf. Mark 14:36). Nothing can stay His hand or prevent Him from accomplishing what He wishes. (Always Ready, p. 226)
Thus if the Christian god wished to create water by combining hydrogen and oxygen atoms, nothing would prevent it from accomplishing such a wish. If the Christian god wished to create earth as the third planet from our sun, nothing would prevent it from doing as it wished. If the Christian god wanted to create man with two arms instead of six or 14, nothing would have prevented it from doing as it wished. Everything that could be said to exist externally to itself would have to have been created by it in the first place, which means: it could not find objects by looking outward until it first created them. Consequently, there would be no objective constraints on its wishing activity. Thus metaphysical subjectivism as the essential starting point of theism is inescapable here, given theism’s own descriptions and affirmations.

So how could objectivity arise from inherently subjectivist beginnings? Theists do not explain this. In fact, most seem quite anxious to deny the subjectivism inherent in the only starting point their worldview’s descriptions and affirmations allow them to have. And yet, they do not at the same time explain how their worldview’s starting point could be objective in nature.

When theists like Greg Bahnsen tell us things like “God’s thoughts make the world what it is and determine what happens,” can they cite any objectively verifiable evidence - i.e., evidence that we can find by looking outward at the world – which unmistakably supports the premise that it is possible for conscious activity to result in the existence of physical objects? What objectively verifiable evidence shows that conscious activity can “create” physical objects? There’s no doubting that we can imagine such a phenomenon; that is not disputed here. In fact, I would say that because there is no objectively verifiable evidence that any consciousness with such power exists at all, we have no alternative but to imagine it. And yet, theists insist that this is true, even though they cannot explain how we can reliably distinguish between what they call “God” and what they may merely be imagining on top of the fact that they can produce no objectively verifiable evidence of any consciousness with anything even remotely approaching the power they claim on behalf of their god.

All of these points, even taken individually, serve as a formidable indictment against the Christian worldview. In reaction to them, theistic apologists wiggle and squirm and sometimes bloviate in a manner unbecoming to secure confidence in one’s position. Obviously piqued by the audacity of pointing out these faults and raising these questions, Christian apologists quite often launch into personal attacks. Their worldview already presupposes that non-believers are guilty (we’ve had no trial and no chance to contest the charges brought against us in Christianity’s kangaroo court), and yet the challenges and objections raised against Christianity go unanswered. A particular non-believer might be guilty of all kinds of infractions, but this does not have any bearing on the matter. Theists can revile us personally for our definitions, our logic, our arguments, our objections, our willingness to quote apologetic sources, etc., but at the end of the day we are still left with no alternative but to imagine the god Christians claim to worship.

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...


Looking forward to reading it!

I haven't had much time in the past few days to contribute, but I've been keeping tabs on things and am certainly enjoying reading all the comments and blog entries.


Bahnsen Burner said...

Hi Ydemoc,

It's good to hear from you!

I can definitely appreciate limited supplies of time! But somehow I've been able to be quite productive this month.

In the meantime, I'm still waiting for Rick Warden (here) to cite the source of the alternative definition of 'metaphysical primacy' which he has presented in his blog. His first reply to my request for him to cite the original source for the definition he gives for MP looked very much like a very weak excuse. He wrote:

<<Perhaps the reason I did not offer a third-party source is because the only group that seems to be supporting this argument is the Rand objectivist one. That, however, does not give Randian objectivists license to avoid basic definitions of the words "primacy" and "metaphysics" in creating their own definitions. I believe I have done justice to both words included in the phrase.>>

Warden sees in Objectivism's emphasis of MP only the argument that I have formed from it against theism. He apparently does not recognize any importance to understanding the nature of the relationship between consciosuness and its objects and its implications for knowledge and philosophy, regardless of its implications for theism. And yet he has stated (here) that "No truly objective person would be interested in adopting a definition of metaphysical primacy that is skewed to serve one metaphysical viewpoint."

He apparently thinks that the term 'metaphysical primacy' should be defined in a way that allows for all sorts of differing positions on metaphysics, regardless of their truth value. And he calls that "objective"? He seems content to use terms only for the impression they may invoke in readers, not for their actual meanings.


Ydemoc said...


Thanks for the comments!

You wrote: "Warden sees in Objectivism's emphasis of MP only the argument that I have formed from it against theism. He apparently does not recognize any importance to understanding the nature of the relationship between consciosuness and its objects and its implications for knowledge and philosophy, regardless of its implications for theism. And yet he has stated (here) that 'No truly objective person would be interested in adopting a definition of metaphysical primacy that is skewed to serve one metaphysical viewpoint.'"

Yet that is exactly what he's done, i.e., adopted "a definition... skewed to serve [his] metaphysical viewpoint"! Where did that definition come from and what is he relying upon to form it?

I'm also amazed how quickly theists resort to the "agreed upon" approach when it comes to, in this case, definitions; but then they run from it when it comes to morality. Objectivism avoids such inconsistencies, since in all cases, reality is the final court of appeal, and not "society" "tradition" or the "agreed upon."


Ydemoc said...


I'd like to modify what I wrote, as I found it to be incomplete. Here's how it should read:

"Objectivism avoids such inconsistencies, since in all cases, reality is the final court of appeal, and not "society" "tradition," "the agreed upon" or "the supernatural."