Saturday, November 01, 2014

Jason Petersen on the Fallacy of Pure Self-Reference

While Floyd FP was making efforts to raise objections against Objectivism and defend his subjecto-solipsistic position from the charge that it commits the fallacy of pure self-reference (see here), I found a Q&A article by none other than Jason Petersen in which the strapping young “Clarkian presuppositionalist” attempted to bring into question the legitimacy of there being such a thing as a the fallacy of pure self-reference. Petersen is apparently replying to a visitor to his website who raised questions about the fallacy of pure self-reference.

Here we have more proof that Petersen is content to make pronouncements about things of which he has little if any understanding. Why anyone would go to Jason Petersen in an effort to become better informed on anything falling under the purview of philosophy is beyond me. But he’s set himself up in a “ministry” and apparently that is all it takes, within Christianity, to become some sort of “expert” on philosophy.

Today’s [sic]-fest comes from Petersen’s 28. Q + A: The Fallacy of Pure-Self Reference [sic] (right – he doesn’t even get the hyphen correct!). In this “Q + A,” Petersen feigns to have the acumen to address a question about the fallacy of pure self-reference (notice where the hyphen goes).

Here is the question as it appears on Petersen’s webpage:
Hey Jason…is the “fallacy of self reference” a real fallacy? It seems to presuppose certain objectivist presuppositions that Christians would deny. I don’t see it used outside of objectivist circles. It is claimed by Anton Thorn.  
Another question. Am I right to say that Christians would not believe in the primacy of consciousness or existence. It seems that there are definition issues, but God is more than a consciousness…I mean that consciousness does not encompass all His attributes? From the WSC ” God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.  
Last question: What would be your definition of consciousness?(Specifically in relation to God.)
No doubt the individual who posed this question to Jason Petersen had learned about the fallacy from Anton Thorn’s God and Pure Self-Reference (since he cites Thorn by name), or he heard about it from a string of others who ultimately learned about it from this document. In any case, Petersen does not provide a link to it, nor does he quote or even interact with anything Thorn states in the document. One wonders if Petersen ever read it.

Petersen begins his response to this query with the following paragraph:
Philosophers do not generally recognize the fallacy of pure-self reference as a fallacy. Also, objectivists are known for making up terms and fallacies in order to make their conception of reality seem more plausible. It is rather underhanded, but in philosophy definitions can be questioned so the matter is rather trivial.
It’s quite curious that Petersen begins the way he does, namely by alluding to what an unspecified collection of philosophers “generally recognize” or not. This is probably not a path that a Christian apologist is going to want to travel very far, for we can ask similar questions about what philosophers “generally recognize” when it comes to Christian doctrines.

For example, how many philosophers “generally recognize” the virgin birth or the miracle-filled tales of Moses? For that matter, how many philosophers “generally recognize” theism as a legitimate worldview?

I wouldn’t hazard a guess on any of these myself, but one study under the auspices of David Chalmers surveying 3226 philosophers (“including 1803 philosophy faculty members and/or PhDs and 829 philosophy graduate students” per here; see also here) gives some real statistical information. (Information on the university departments targeted by the survey can be found here.)

On the question “God: theism or atheism,” respondents answered as follows:
Accept or lean toward:  
atheism 2136 / 3226 (66.2%)  
Accept or lean toward: theism 599 / 3226 (18.6%) 
Other 491 / 3226 (15.2%)
Now I don’t find these results surprising – it’s clearly a mixed bag. But it is noteworthy that those affirming theism in their responses number less than 20% of the overall sample. Are these figures accurate? I don’t know, but I would accept that they are reflective of those who were actually sampled.

The point is that it’s not very helpful to appeal to what a group of especially anonymous people might suppose, as Petersen does, unless of course one’s goal is to poison the well. It’s true that most philosophers out there reject Objectivism – we already know this. They reject Objectivism because they reject capitalism, limited government, free markets, rational self-interest, even rational epistemology in preference for socialism, increasing government intrusion into private affairs, altruism via “community service,” “environmentalism,” “climate change,” “multi-culturalism,” etc., etc., etc. But this fact will not offer any lasting value for Petersen’s apologetic goals.

Just as naïve is how Petersen overlooks the fact that fallacies are things thinkers have encountered in attempts to establish a conclusion, and that some of those thinkers had to identify them along the way. Those who have identified fallacies could have chosen instead to ignore them. Even more broadly, there was a time before any informal fallacy had ever been identified. At some point there had to be first one. Who can say that no more fallacies can be found?

In his A Concise Introduction to Logic (7th ed., 1999), Patrick Hurley points out (p. 120):
Since the time of Aristotle, logicians have attempted to classify the various informal fallacies. Aristotle himself identified thirteen and separated them into two groups. The work of subsequent logicians has produced dozens more, rendering the task of classifying them even more difficult.
Perhaps Petersen would have us suppose that Aristotle was being “underhanded” when he identified 13 distinct fallacies. Hurley himself surveys 22 different informal fallacies in his Introduction, which must be even more “underhanded.” If someone were to take Hurley’s treatment of fallacies as exhaustive (something Hurley nowhere claims) and then encounter Hacking’s “inverse gambler’s fallacy” (see here), he would be naïve to suppose that Hacking simply “made up” the fallacy in order to further his own ends simply because Hurley does not cover it. Indeed, the inverse gambler’s fallacy is a formal fallacy.

In their Introduction to Logic (8th ed., 1990), Copi and Cohen make the following statement (p. 92):
How many different kinds of mistakes in arguments – different fallacies – must be distinguished? Aristotle, the first systematic logician, identified 13 types; very recently a listing of more than 113 has been developed! There is no precisely determinable number of fallacies, since much depends, in counting them, upon the system of classification used. We distinguish 17 fallacies here…
But H.W.B. Joseph makes a most instructive point when he states in his massive An Introduction to Logic, 2nd ed., 1916, p. 569):
If however we are satisfied that Logic should treat of fallacies, it is very difficult to be satisfied with any treatment of them. Truth may have its norms, but error is infinite in its aberrations, and they cannot be digested in any classification.
While I would not give up on classification, I think the point Joseph makes here is invaluable: since there are so many ways in which thinkers can err (as opposed to adhering to a set of norms by which truth can validly be established), we should be ever vigilant in regards to the myriad possibilities in which error can arise in human reasoning. Which is to say: we should not casually assume that all possible ways of erring in reasoning have already been discovered, identified and understood. It seems that such an assumption would itself constitute a fallacy!

So I would suggest that Petersen give these matters the sober care they clearly require.

Petersen continues:
Objectivists define this fallacy as a proposition that only refers to itself and nothing external of itself.
The only definition of the fallacy of pure self-reference that I know of is that of Anton Thorn’s. In his article God and Pure Self-Reference, Thorn writes:
The fallacy of pure self-reference occurs when a concept or statement is asserted as referring exclusively to its own object-less referring.
Thorn acknowledges in a footnote in that paper that this is his own formulation. I think it covers the essentials – which is what a definition should cover – quite well.

Thorn himself cites a lecture by Dr. Harry Binswanger titled “The Metaphysics of Consciousness” as the source of his understanding of the fallacy of pure self-reference. Binswanger gives the name for this fallacy and he does so in the context of discussing the trend in philosophy and other disciplines to emphasize form at the expense of content and, in epistemology, “substituting the how for the what,” which leads to the view that thinking (the “how”) is possible without something to think about (the “what”). This is the essence of the fallacy of pure self-reference as Dr. Binswanger recognizes it. Binswanger cites Gödel’s Theorem as the instigator of his identification of this fallacy.

Consider the following statement:
This statement is provable.
If this statement does not refer to any statement other than to itself (which Binswanger argues is analogous to the problem wrestled with in Gödel’s Theorem), then how can one evaluate it? Since the statement refers exclusively to its own referring, then there is no content, no tie to reality, and consequently no means by which one could evaluate whether it is true or not. It is essentially contentless. In other words, form without content, the “how” substituting for the “what” of cognition.

Now, if Petersen does not accept this as fallacious, that tells us about him and his worldview. After all, his not accepting this as a real fallacy does not translate into a refutation of Binswanger’s observations. Petersen would need to do a lot more than merely pontificate from his secondhanded vantage of profound ignorance and naïveté to have any chance at such a goal.

Petersen thinks that the axiom of existence commits this very fallacy. He writes:
Ironically, by that definition, the primary objectivist axiom is, “existence exists.” Since the axiom doesn’t implicate anything regarding the state of affairs within reality, it commits the fallacy of pure self reference. Thus, if Adam Thorn thinks this philosophy to be so damaging, he ought to abandon objectivist metaphysics. [sic]
Here Petersen simply announces that he does not understand the axiom of existence in the least (he also does not get Thorn’s name right – it’s Anton, not “Adam”). The axiom ‘existence exists’ as Objectivism informs it does not commit the fallacy of pure self-reference. To do so, the axiom would have to refer exclusively to its own referring. But the axiom of existence does not do this. On the contrary, the axiom of existence has for its reference everything that exists: there is the world of objects which we perceive around us, and there is the recognition made formally explicit that they exist. So the axiom of existence in fact does have objective reference, namely everything that exists. To say that “the axiom doesn’t implicate anything regarding the state of affairs within reality,” is to ignore the fact that the axiom simply affirms that reality exists. To make any further statements “regarding the state of affairs within reality,” one must first acknowledge that reality exists in the first place. While most thinkers simply take this fact for granted without explicitly grasping it and the means by which they grasp it, Objectivism begins by formally recognizing both (a) the fact that existence exists and (b) the fact that the conscious knower recognizing that fact is in fact conscious of it. So the axiom of existence, far from committing the fallacy of pure self-reference, is in fact the only proper starting point.

This all underscores the fact that, if Petersen does not even understand what Objectivism means by ‘existence exists’, he simply has no business trying to critique Objectivism.

But Petersen still thinks that the very idea of the fallacy of pure self-reference has negative implications for any philosophy which recognizes it as a real fallacy. He writes:
Nevertheless, the fallacy leads to absurd implications if someone argues it to be legitimate.
Here I take Petersen to be saying that the “absurd implications” he has in mind will inevitably follow if one treats the pure self-reference of a proposition as fallacious. Let’s quickly test this on a case that is a clear instance of the offense in question. Consider the following statement:
This sentence is false.
Understood to be referring only to itself, this statement would clearly commit what Binswanger calls the fallacy of pure self-reference. The statement refers exclusively to itself and thus to nothing beyond itself, and says of itself that it is false. Accepting the fallacious premise of such a maneuver would lead to obvious paradoxes: if it is truly a false statement, the statement would be true; if the statement were true, it would be wrong to call it false. But what would show that it is either true or false? Even if we revise the statement to say “This sentence is true,” on what basis could we evaluate such a claim? Since it refers exclusively to its own referring, the statement has no tie to reality, no relationship to existence, no objective content. Apparently Petersen does not think that statements which have no objective content are a problem.

At first blush, it appears that embracing statements which are purely self-referential would lead to “absurd implications.” But let’s see if Petersen makes any progress in demonstrating his claim that the fallacy of pure self-reference “leads to absurd implications if someone argues it to be legitimate.”

Petersen continues:
In any philosophy, everyone must start somewhere.
Okay. As we saw above, Objectivism starts with the axiom of existence. And as I demonstrated, this is the only proper starting point. What alternative to this would not assume the truth of Objectivism’s starting point? Even if one claims “God” as his starting point, does he not suppose that his god exists? Thus he would be assuming the truth of the axiom of existence, and what’s more, the axiom of existence would have to be true in order for him even to contemplate the question of what should be the proper starting point. Also, “God” as opposed to what? To identify a particular as something specific is to distinguish it from anything and everything else that exists. Thus to point to any particular is to implicitly acknowledge the existence of other things against which it is to be distinguished – e.g., “God” as opposed to all this other stuff we observe around us. So even if the apologist does acknowledge the truth of the axiom of existence, he cannot say it applies exclusively to his god or even only incipiently to his god. To do so would commit the fallacy of the stolen concept.

But what does this have to do with the fallacy of pure self-reference?

Petersen continues:
If one does not start somewhere, then one cannot move to any conclusion, nor can they even begin to make inferences.
Or more to the point, if one does not start somewhere, he is simply not thinking to begin with.

But again, what does this have to do with the fallacy of pure self-reference?

Petersen then says:
Any starting point in philosophy must be self-referent.
What does this mean? Petersen does not explain. Nor does he present any argument or rationale for why one should accept this claim. Nor does it say anything about the fallacy of pure self-reference.

The fallacy of pure self-reference does not say that a statement which does refer to itself is necessarily fallacious simply because it refers to itself. If I make the statement, “Keep in mind what I say now, because it will help you in the future,” I am uttering a statement that makes reference to itself, but it does not refer exclusively to itself; the statement makes reference to other things as well. So while the statement does in fact refer to itself, it does not refer exclusively to its own referring.

Also, we must keep in mind that by “starting point in philosophy” we (I have Objectivism in mind here) mean a fundamental recognition which is conceptual in nature. Thus it necessarily involves the subject-object relationship: there is the subject of consciousness recognizing a fundamental primary, and there is the realm of objects which inform that recognition. Thus a starting point in philosophy needs to be not only conceptual, but also conceptually irreducible - i.e., it cannot presuppose more fundamental premises (which would themselves be composed of concepts). In other words, it must be in the form of an axiomatic concept, i.e., a first level concept formed directly on the basis of what is directly perceived. The concept ‘existence’, even if only implicitly, is the first concept one forms. Many thinkers don’t like to be reminded of it, so they prefer to simply take it for granted and leave it concealed beneath the surface so that its conflicts with a myriad of unfounded assumptions never come to light. But it’s still there, and so are the conflicts. Thus we can see how evasion is itself an expression of the primacy of consciousness: “If I don’t acknowledge the problem, the problem does not exist.” This is one of the distinguishing features of presuppositional apologetics, and we see it in action every time the apologist engages in “debate.”

Petersen states:
This starting point is called a first principle.
Okay. And? What about the fallacy of pure self-reference? How does acknowledge this fallacy as a fallacy lead to “absurd implications”?

Petersen goes on:
If one claims they can prove the first principle(also known as an axiom) can be shown to be true by something that is independent of the first principle, then the first principle is not a first principle. [sic]
Why? I certainly don’t accept this, not entirely anyway. But I know why Petersen does. Petersen assumes this is the case precisely because his worldview does not have an objective starting point. More precisely, when Petersen announces his first principle, he cannot point to what it refers to. But Objectivists can. When I say “existence exists,” I can point to everything I see all around me, for it is to everything that I see around me, and everything else that exists, that the axiom of existence refers to. That is enough to show that the axiom of existence is true.

Take a look at the axiom of existence. It denotes the fundamental fact that existence exists. Now realm of existence which the axiom of existence denotes does in fact exist independently of the axiom itself. The axiom is a formal recognition of the fact that existence exists. Recognition is a type of conscious activity. But existence exists independently of any conscious activity, including recognition. That’s the primacy of existence. The alternative (to be in line with what Petersen affirms here) would be tantamount to saying that existence will exist only so long as someone acknowledges that it exists. But that’s the primacy of consciousness. On the primacy of consciousness, existence depends on some kind of conscious activity.

Now strictly speaking – and this might be what Petersen is attempting to say here (if so, he needs to work on his ability to articulate himself with more clarity, and he needs to learn to be consistent with this) – Objectivism does not claim that it can establish the axioms on the basis of a formal proof - i.e., an argument consisting of premises supporting a conclusion, since the axioms are required for any proof to get off the ground. In actuality, proof is essentially the process of demonstrating the logical tie between that which is not perceptually self-evident with that which is perceptually self-evident. This is known in epistemology as reduction whereby a contextual context is analyzed in order to determine whether or not it has objective basis.

But this does not mean that the truth of the axioms cannot be demonstrated or shown. A formal proof is only one species of demonstration. There are empirical forms of demonstration as well. Consider the following dialogue between Smith, a philosophically untutored inquirer, and Jones, an Objectivist:
Smith: What’s your starting point? 
Jones: I start with the axiom of existence – i.e., the fundamental recognition that existence exists. 
Smith: Well, can you demonstrate the truth of this starting point? 
Jones: Sure, look around you. What do you see? 
Smith: Well, I see buildings, cars, people walking on the street, sidewalks, streets, newspaper stands, motorcycles, etc. 
Jones: Right. All of that is what we mean by the concept ‘existence’. 
Smith: But doesn’t what your starting point denotes need to depend on your starting point for your starting point to be true? 
Jones: No, the exact opposite is the case: existence exists – the reality we perceive exists, and it exists independent of any conscious activity, including concept-formation. We see the world around us and we explicitly recognize the fact that it exists in the form of a single-concept axiom, ‘existence exists’. So there’s what exists, and there’s our identification of what exists. 
Smith: Oh, hey, I get it. So you can demonstrate the truth of your axiom by pointing to something that is independent of it. You just don’t need an argument for it, since it’s not a conclusion of some prior reasoning. 
Jones: Exactly. Since this is the most fundamental point in our conceptual awareness, there’s no need to assemble proofs for it. The task of proving something is itself a conceptual process. So at this point proof is not available to us yet. 
Smith: I get it! Thanks! 
Jones: I’m glad I could help.
So it should be clear that, in addition to lacking an objective starting point, Petersen also ignores the distinction between concepts and their referents. The concept ‘existence’ is the most fundamental concept; it cannot be analyzed into or defined in terms of more fundamental concepts; the concept ‘existence’ is the most fundamental concept. But this does not mean that it cannot be shown to be true by something that is independent of that concept. Just as the universe exists independent of the concept ‘universe’, the realm of existence exists independent of the concept ‘existence’. The realm of objects which the concept ‘existence’ denotes does not depend on the concept ‘existence’ for their existence. The world exists, it exists independent of all conscious activity, and then we come along, see it directly, and identify what we see in conceptual form.

Consequently, what Petersen is offering here is just more primacy of consciousness metaphysics. He is essentially saying that the objects which a concept denotes depend on the concept for their very existence.

Petersen then writes:
Thus, if the fallacy of self-reference is true, then there can be no legitimate starting point for any worldview, including objectivism.
Now that Petersen’s premises have been checked and found to be completely flawed, we can put to eternal rest his claim that acknowledging the fallacy of pure self-reference as a legitimate fallacy “leads to absurd implications if someone argues it to be legitimate.” Indeed, he doesn’t even really make a case for such an assessment.

Petersen concludes:
Thus, Adam [sic] Thorn’s fallacy draws a damaging implication that suggests that objectivism fails to escape a self-refuting skepticism.
I suspect that Petersen started out with this “conclusion” as his desired goal all along and thus used it to direct his harrowingly under-informed analysis. Petersen’s concern is not to consider new ideas and improve his understanding, but to shut down his rational faculty and destroy anything that it comes in contact with for the sake of protecting his confessional investment in religious faith. This is precisely how faith squelches reason. He does not care how much he distorts, misrepresents, and caricaturizes his opponents’ positions. The end justifies the means when it comes to Christian apologetics. And Petersen must consider Objectivism to be quite a threat to his worldview for him to find it necessary to stoop to such deceptions. Or, is he even stooping at all in the first place? Perhaps not.

Petersen presumptuously speaks for all Christian believers. He writes:
Christians do not believe in the primacy of consciousness or existence.
Can Petersen back this up with “Scripture”? Indeed, he gives no citations. Is he just “making it up”? Where does he get this from? Was it “revealed” to him… in a dream? Does Petersen give any indication that he knows what he’s talking about? Not here. Shall we be surprised if, as we proceed through his nonsense, we find positive evidence that he is utterly clueless on the matter?

Here’s a cut-to-the-chase for any Christian who might be reading this. It’s a very simple, yes-no question:
Does wishing make something true?
A yes answer would be an affirmation of the primacy of consciousness. It would be affirming that consciousness has the power to make whatever it wishes true by force of will. That would be an example of consciousness holding metaphysical primacy over its objects.

A no answer would be compatible with the primacy of existence, the recognition that the objects of consciousness exist and are what they are independent of consciousness activity, that the task of consciousness is not to create and/or alter the nature of its objects by force of will, but to perceive objects and identify them.

Reluctance to weigh in on the question will only suggest that one is fearful of the implications of a commitment either way, that he is hesitant to expose his worldview’s endorsement of the primacy of consciousness. Then again, how could Christians consistently reply negatively to this question? What about their god’s wishing, which they claim made the world? According to Christian mythology, the Christian god essentially wished the universe into being, from nothing. That’s the primacy of consciousness on hyper-steroids.

But to say that “Christians do not believe in the primacy of consciousness or existence” would suggest that Christians do not believe there is any relationship between consciousness and its objects to begin with. In other words, it would constitute a wholesale denial of the subject-object relationship. But such a statement, coming from a self-professed Christian, would be self-refuting: he, Petersen, is a conscious subject making a statement about an entire class of objects, namely Christian believers, which he treats summarily. So whether he realizes it or not, Petersen is in effect engaging in the subject-object relationship while denying it at the same time. Thus he demolishes his own position by committing the fallacy of the stolen concept.

Petersen writes:
Christians believe in the primacy of God.
Keep in mind that “God” is something which the believer must imagine. He has no alternative to his imagination as the means by which he can “know” this object of his worship. So right there, the believer is already operating on the primacy of consciousness. He’s essentially saying that what he imagines is real. Just as the Christian religion claims that the Christian god wished the universe into being, the believer wishes his god into being. As Van Til himself puts it, “The starting-point, the method, and the conclusion are always involved in one another” (The Defense of the Faith, p. 101). And round and round we go. The starting point for the believer is the primacy of consciousness; his method is the primacy of consciousness; his conclusion is the primacy of consciousness. It’s pure primacy of the subject over any and all objects of consciousness. That’s subjectivism either way you slice it.

Also, the assertion of the imaginative notion of “the primacy of God” does not obviate the issue of metaphysical primacy – i.e., the question as to whether existence or consciousness holds metaphysical primacy. Notice that Petersen borrows the primacy of existence just in affirming what he says here, for he is stating it as thought it were a fact that obtains in reality (or “super-reality”) independent of anyone’s beliefs, knowledge, wishes, feelings, preferences, likes or dislikes, imagination, dreams, etc. In other words, he is implying that his statement denotes a fact that obtains independently of anyone’s conscious activity. That’s the primacy of existence. But in the content of what he claims, he is clearly affirming the primacy of consciousness – for smuggled in that content is the affirmation of a consciousness which does hold metaphysical primacy over existence – a consciousness which wished existence into being and which can revise whatever exists by force of will. So again, Petersen’s entire metaphysics is entirely self-contradictory: he is performatively borrowing the primacy of existence in order to assert a view which assumes the primacy of consciousness.

Petersen writes:
Existence and consciousness are a part of God’s attributes (Exodus 3:14).
Of course, this does not address the issue of metaphysical primacy. Recall that the issue of metaphysical primacy has to do with the relationship between consciousness and its objects. The primacy of existence is the recognition that the objects of consciousness exist and are what they are independent of conscious activity; the primacy of consciousness is the assumption that the objects of consciousness depend on conscious activity in some way for their very existence and/or the nature they have at any time.

So to tease this out, let’s ask a few fundamental questions about the god Petersen imagines:
1. Is the Christian god conscious? Yes or no? If no, then it has no knowledge, no judgment, no commandments, etc. If yes, then:

2. Is the Christian god conscious of any objects? If no, then we’re back to no consciousness to begin with. If yes, then:

3. What is the relationship between the Christian god qua conscious subject and any objects it is said to be conscious of?

4. Do the objects of the Christian god’s consciousness exist and have their own identity independent of the Christian god’s conscious activity? A yes to this question would mean that the objects of the Christian god’s consciousness did not originate in the Christian god’s conscious activity (so it did not create them by fiat) and that they do not conform to the Christian god’s conscious intentions – e.g., if a flower is a daisy and it’s growing in the backyard of a home in rural Illinois, that flower exists and is what it is independent of any conscious activity that the Christian god might perform. Which would mean: the Christian god did not create it. On the other hand, if no, then:

5. Do the objects of the Christian god’s consciousness find their source in and/or conform to the Christian god’s conscious activity? A yes to this question would mean that the objects of the Christian god originated in the Christian god’s conscious activity (e.g., it wished them into being) and/or the objects are whatever the Christian wants them to be at any moment in their existence (e.g., one moment it is a stick, the next it is a serpent slithering along the floor).
Now, we have all heard enough about what Christianity teaches to know how a believer who is forthright about his worldview’s premises would have to answer these questions. So for apologists to come along and try to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes simply exposes their disingenuousness. They want to hide something about their worldview, so their entire mission to defend their worldview is fraught with dishonesty and deception.

Petersen cited the holy storybook to substantiate his point. Exodus 3:14 states:
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
It is true that these statements presuppose existence and consciousness. But Objectivism already points out that these concepts, given their axiomatic nature, are inescapable. Even the Christian god cannot sidestep the Objectivist axioms. Indeed, one could open any page of Harry Potter and quote some dialogue from it, and it too would presuppose the axiomatic concepts of existence and consciousness. So there’s nothing unique here at all.

What’s important to note is that the Christian storybook nowhere affirms these axiomatic concepts explicitly, nor does it explain their nature as axiomatic concepts, let alone discuss the issue of metaphysical primacy in any informed manner. On the contrary, like other writings, the Christian bible leaves these concepts implicit and in so doing fails to distinguish itself from the vast universe of human literature which does the same. Its authors clearly accepted the primacy of consciousness; this is incontestable. This is not unique. In fact, it’s quite commonplace in ancient literature, just as it is so commonplace in today’s philosophy departments. Old bad ideas die hard.

Petersen writes:
God does not rely on existence or consciousness for his knowledge because God does not gain or lose knowledge. Rather, he is all knowing, and has always been all knowing.
In other words, Christians worship a being that will never learn because it cannot learn. And notice how the view Petersen expresses, which is no doubt authentically Christian, simply underscores the Christian god as a chance being: it’s just by chance that the Christian god exists, and it’s just by chance that the Christian god “does not gain or lose knowledge.” Sure, we can imagine this. But that’s the ultimate problem here: there’s no alternative to engaging the imagination when it comes to contemplating such notions.

Petersen writes:
In relation to God, I would define consciousness as being self aware and aware of external objects.
Notice that Petersen does not cite any passage from the Christian bible to prooftext his proposed definition. In fact, I don’t think he can. If believers could go to the bible for such definitions, lay believers who are literate would not have to come to Petersen for answers to such fundamental questions.

But what good does Petersen’s proposed definition do for his position? Now he needs to define what “aware” means, since he has defined consciousness as “being self aware and aware of external objects.” So has he really made any progress here?

Another question, which Petersen does not anticipate, is: by what means is this alleged god aware of anything, whether it’s of itself or of anything distinct from itself? It has no body, so it has no physical organs which can register stimuli from its environment. So does it have some other means? Or, is it aware of things no how? If that’s the case, then on what objective basis could one call it “awareness”? What objective inputs (e.g., things outside his wishing and imagination) can the apologist point to in order to substantiate his claims? Blank out.

Also, notice that “being aware… of external objects” is essential to Petersen’s definition of the concept ‘consciousness’. So this just leads us right back to the problem of divine lonesomeness: what external objects were available for the Christian god to be aware of before it supposedly created any? The Christian worldview requires that there are no independently existing things other than the Christian god, that everything that exists other than the Christian god was created by the Christian god. If one accepts this, he would also have to accept the view, necessarily implicit in all this, that there would have to have been a point before which it created anything distinct from itself. But then we would be right back where Christianity ultimately started, with consciousness conscious of nothing but itself. So the Christian cannot escape the fallacy of pure self-reference.

I’m sure glad these aren’t my problems!

Petersen writes:
However, God did not ever gain point of external objects, nor did he ever realize that he is self aware.
I don’t know what Petersen means when he says his god “did not ever gain point of external objects.” Perhaps he needs to edit this to make it clearer. Maybe he just means that his god never gains anything at all.

But the rest of what he says is clear. It means he worships a god which has never discovered that it is self-aware.

Petersen asserts:
Because God is unchangeable, immutable, and all knowing, he knows all propositions objectively without any limitation of knowledge of these propositions.
Of course, anyone can imagine this, but as we know, that’s the problem: there is no alternative to relying on the imagination when it comes to entertaining such claims as Petersen makes here.

Petersen concludes:
Thus, knowledge of reality is not predicated on consciousness or reality itself, rather, it is predicated upon God.
In other words, Petersen affirms knowledge without consciousness. What else needs to be said? Petersen writes:
Without God, nothing would exist and there would not be any consciousness.
Again, this is something one can only “know” by looking inward. It has no objective tie to reality whatsoever, and thus cannot be accepted as a truth.

Petersen closes with the following remark:
Perhaps a more extensive response to Thorn is warranted, but that shall come in due time.
So apparently Petersen wants more occasions on which to put his ignorance of philosophy on display before the world. I predict that he will not fail to disappoint should he undertake such an endeavor.

by Dawson Bethrick


Anonymous said...

Hey Dawson,

A few mistakes:

The link to "Anton Thorn’s God and Pure Self-Reference" does not go to Anton's God and Pure Self-reference, but to Petersen's bullshit.

You wrote self-interest instead of self-reference here: "the fallacy of pure self-interest, is in fact the only proper starting point."

You wrote "primacy of consciousness" here: "he is implying that his statement denotes a fact that obtains independently of anyone’s conscious activity. That’s the primacy of consciousness." I think there you meant "primacy of existence."


l_johan_k said...

Another great post!
Thank you!
regards, Johan (Sweden)

Bahnsen Burner said...


Egads! I'm losing my mojo!

Thanks for pointing these out.

I have corrected the offending errors. Hopefully it's better now!


Unknown said...

Hey Dawson/All,

Wouldn't an "answer" to the problem of pure self-ref be that God is not temporal, but existing at all times? He is present in the past and the future.

If they imagine him as present in the past "before" he created existence, but simultaneously present after the point of creation, he would be "aware" of existence/existants even when all that existed was him.

Also, wouldn't they also fall back on the triune nature?

Thanks for the read,

Unknown said...

*Erratum; I meant to reference "The Problem of Divine Lonesomeness" in that comment* Pardon my speed and now my subsequent laziness in not rewriting it. Thanks.


Ydemoc said...


Again, I haven't had very much time to post my thoughts, but I wanted to chime in to say that I've certainly been reading. Excellent stuff!

What strikes me (and it's really not much of a surprise) is the way Jason Peterson tries to defend his fantastical notions at all costs, in seemingly knee-jerk fashion, clearly sacrificing reason in the process.


Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Daniel,

It’s good to hear from you. Thanks for your question.

You asked: “Wouldn't an ‘answer’ to the problem of pure self-ref be that God is not temporal, but existing at all times? He is present in the past and the future.”

Yes, I’ve seen this kind of response before. Does it answer the problem of divine lonesomeness or obvert the fallacy of pure self-reference? In fact, I think it makes matters worse for the apologist. First of all, right off we can say that such a response is at least a tacit acknowledgement of the underlying problem: if pure self-reference were not a problem, then the apologist would not have to add more to the story.

Second, the whole thing is blatantly ad hoc – just posit a magic consciousness, and that solves all problems. Such notions just confirm that the believer’s imagination – not facts, not objective reference to reality – is his fundamental guide here.

But even worse, I would see such a response as a denial of the axiom of consciousness. Since consciousness is a type of activity, the notion an “atemporal consciousness” essentially denies the very nature of consciousness as such. To be conscious of something is to be conscious of something at a specific time. When did I see the car coming? Right before the bus turned into its lane. I did not see this before it happened, and I’m not seeing this two weeks after the incident. This is all due to the fact that consciousness is a type of activity. What evidence is there for such a thing as a single action that is eternal?

You asked: “If they imagine him as present in the past ‘before’ he created existence, but simultaneously present after the point of creation, he would be ‘aware’ of existence/existants even when all that existed was him.”

The key here is “imagine.” Of course, the theist can imagine whatever he wants. We all can. But that’s all the theist has to go on when it comes to such matters. Of course, the theist would need to explain the *how* involved in all this, but then again, he’d just be imagining here as well. Again, it’s all ad hoc.

You asked: “Also, wouldn't they also fall back on the triune nature?”

Yes, this has also been cited in response to the problem of divine lonesomeness. But this only multiplies the problem. How many seats of consciousness are there in the trinity? One? Three? It doesn’t matter either way. If the triune god created everything distinct of itself, then it could not be consciousness of anything distinct of itself until it created anything distinct from itself. To suggest that it was conscious of things before it created them is simply to confuse objective reality with divine imagination. Such a consciousness would surely be eternally confused!



Bahnsen Burner said...

Hi Ydemoc,

Nice to hear from you!

You wrote: “Again, I haven't had very much time to post my thoughts, but I wanted to chime in to say that I've certainly been reading. Excellent stuff!”

Thanks! I’ve had a little burst of activity on my blog in the last couple months. I will try to get more up later, but things are starting to get busy for me again.

You wrote: “What strikes me (and it's really not much of a surprise) is the way Jason Peterson tries to defend his fantastical notions at all costs, in seemingly knee-jerk fashion, clearly sacrificing reason in the process.”

Petersen apparently thinks he’s some kind of firebrand dishing up something original. He’s so caught up in his fantasies to see that the path he’s walking is well-worn and strewn with carcasses of thinkers much mightier than himself.

I do notice that, so far, he’s not made good on his promise to make me eat my words…


Unknown said...


You said; "if pure self-reference were not a problem, then the apologist would not have to add more to the story."

They would argue that it is not them per se that are adding anything to the apologetic. Obviously, they would say that this idea was present in the scripture all along. Splitting hairs as far as I'm concerned, since they are just moving it all back a step to someone else who's dreamt it up rather than they themselves.

You said, " the whole thing is blatantly ad hoc..."

Agreed. I recently got into a cursory discussion about my atheism with a fellow co-worker who is still a practicing theist but with whom I share the same denominational background. Asking him to define the "how" was precisely the stumbling block for him that evoked the patented, canned responses like, "Well, I'm glad I don't have to take a man's word for it"; and "I'm glad I trust in God". Yeah, he basically threw his hands up and bashed man's ability to reason without provocation. Odd response. Now I see the kind of pain in the neck I was when I still held to the same devotional commitment.

You said, "How many seats of consciousness are there in the trinity? One? Three?"

I have often wondered how multiplying the problem helps to solve it. If one needs objects outside of his consciousness to even call what he has true consciousness, why would having two extra consciousness solve the issue. Then there are just three consciousness that need objective reality to inform their existence. Right?

Anyway, thanks for the response. I have been reading along. Just too busy to write as often as I'd like. Cheers.


Unknown said...

Can a company have values?