Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Changing Your Views

The topic of changing one’s views is constantly in play in discussions between religious believers and critics of religious beliefs. The question often arises: What would it take to make you believe? or What would it take to make you abandon your beliefs? Questions of this sort seem to have a baiting nature, but they can be rather thought-provoking as well. It is valuable to reflect on how our views have changed over the course of our lives, what they changed from and what they changed to, what prompted the change and what instigated the original belief to begin with.

In his blog entry Ten Questions Biblical Literalists Cannot Honestly Answer, Casper Rigsby asks:
8. Is there any amount of evidence that would change your views?
In a reaction titled 10 questions, Steve Hays responds:
i) It doesn't occur to Casper that we can't change our views in toto. Our view of the evidence is, itself a viewpoint.
It’s not clear how Hays can divine such a sweeping assessment of what Casper has or has not done from a simple question of this sort (perhaps this has occurred to him – his question is sufficiently open-ended to allow for this).

But when I read Hays’ statement, I was reminded of an entire apologetic strategy executed by another Christian, Douglas Jones. In his paper titled Why & What: A Brief Introduction to Christianity, Jones begins as follows:
Imagine that you are mistaken about everything you hold dear. Suppose you wake up one morning and clearly realize that your long-held, day-to-day views of nature, social values, and self are obviously mistaken.
Is it no coincidence that apologists so often take the imaginary route when arguing for their worldview? (Recall William Lane Craig here.)

But perhaps here we should say: “It doesn’t occur to Jones that we can’t change our views in toto.” Indeed, according to what Hays is saying, we would still need to retain some views – such as that some views can be right and others wrong, that right views and wrong views are incompatible, that wrong views need to be corrected, etc. – in order to evaluate other views in the first place, in order for Jones’ intended exercise even to be meaningful. Unfortunately for Jones, his zeal is too strong to allow him to see that his entire scheme backfires on itself.

Hays writes:
In order to change our views on something, we must privilege our views on other things. Not all beliefs are coequal. Some beliefs are control beliefs. They furnish the standard of comparison by which we evaluate other beliefs. Everything you believe can't up for grabs. If that were the case, you'd have no benchmark.
There is some truth to what Hays is saying here. A fundamental tenet of Objectivist epistemology is that knowledge is hierarchical. (This is just one of many reasons why the notion of “divine revelation” is anti-rational in the first place.) We build our knowledge from the ground up. The foundation needs to be absolutely firm, able to support the rest of our knowledge-structure. But we need something stronger than mere “beliefs” at this level. We need fundamental recognitions that are in direct contact with the reality we find by looking outward. Only this can serve as a suitable foundation for knowledge of reality.

But what constitutes the “bedrock” of our knowledge? What is conceptually irreducible? What is the proper starting point of knowledge?

This is where the axioms and the primacy of existence come in – at the very foundation of knowledge. The axioms make explicit those fundamental recognitions which other philosophies leave implicit, which other philosophies take for granted without ever identifying formally and in their proper place in knowledge (this way it’s not obvious when they contradict them). This category of fundamental recognitions includes the recognition that existence exists (i.e., there is a reality, things exist), that things which exist are themselves, that they are distinct, and that they have identity, that I am conscious of something. The primacy of existence is the recognition that the things which I perceive are distinct from me as a knower, that they are distinct from the means by which I am aware of them, that the reality which I perceive exists and obtains independent of my conscious activity, that the objects of consciousness do not conform to the subject of consciousness, that wishing doesn’t make it so, etc. This is the core principle of objectivity. We need this defining principle from the very beginning, and the primacy of existence is what provides it.

Douglas Jones wants me to imagine that I am wrong about these fundamental recognitions, the foundations of my knowledge that I in fact do “hold dear.” Essentially, Jones wants me to think I’m mistaken in my recognition that there is a reality, that things are themselves and are distinct from other things, that I am conscious, that my wishing doesn’t make it so, that the objects of consciousness do not conform to conscious activity. Essentially, Jones wants me to imagine that I am wrong to build my knowledge on an objective basis. Jones want me to imagine that I am wrong about all these things. Presumably Jones would prefer that I imagine that I am mistaken in recognizing that there is a fundamental distinction between reality and imagination itself. But this should come as no surprise: ignoring this fundamental distinction is a sure doorway to religious belief.

By contrast, Hays insists that some views are not subject to change. Would Hays allow that the axioms and the primacy of existence are to be included in what he calls “control beliefs”? If not, why not? What could possibly be more fundamental? If yes, then how does this square with his belief in supernatural things, things that are accessible only by means of imagination?

Hays continues:
To change your view in light of the evidence assumes an interpretive framework. What counts as evidence? What is possible, impossible, probable, or actual? That depends on what you think the world is like.
So with this in mind… Suppose that, at root, I think the world is a world that exists independent of conscious activity, that wishing doesn’t make it so, that the world that actually exists and what I imagine are two different things, that what is and what I might prefer there to be are not one and the same, that the world does not conform to any conscious activity, that the world continues to be what it is regardless of what I prefer, regardless of what I hope, regardless of what I imagine “back of” the world (as Van Til used to put it), that knowledge of reality is acquired by looking outward at the facts that actually exist rather than by looking inward to my emotions, my wishing, my imagination, commands, etc. How could I adopt the theistic worldview, which holds a diametrically opposite view of the world? Why would theists hold me in such contempt when my worldview explicitly and uncompromisingly adheres to the principle of objectivity?

Perhaps this question answers itself.

But what evidence should I consult to suppose that what I think of the world, as outlined above, is mistaken? What evidence would tell me that I am mistaken to think that the world exists? What evidence would tell me that things are not themselves, that things are not distinct from one another, that things do not have identity? What evidence would tell me that I am not in fact conscious? What evidence would tell me that reality actually does conform to wishing, imagination, commands, and other conscious intentions?

If whatever is proposed as evidence prompting me to question these fundamental recognitions is something that exists, and that evidence is supposed to be whatever it is regardless of what I or anyone else would prefer or imagine it to be, then clearly it would fail to challenge these fundamental recognitions. If it is merely something imaginary, it would again fail to challenge my fundamental recognitions because, at minimum, I would have to exist in order to imagine it, I would have to be conscious in order to imagine it, and I’d be imagining whether I liked it or not. What could possibly serve as a defeater of the axioms and the primacy of existence?

Here is where the theist comes to the discussion utterly empty-handed.

Hays goes on:
ii) Christian faith isn't just one of those garden-variety beliefs that's subject to revision or rejection.
Sure it is. Believers have been revising Christianity since the apostle Paul’s day. Indeed, who knows how much it had been revised before Paul got a hold of it. Paul warns his readers of differing versions of the gospel that might draw in unsuspecting believers and cause them to lose, according to Paul’s view, their salvation. Paul expresses this worry in II Cor. 11:4, where he writes:
if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him.
So it’s clear from the NT record that during Paul’s day – well before the gospel narratives we find in our bibles today were written – that different versions of the gospel were circulating among early Christians. But who’s to say that Paul’s version of Christianity is in fact that true version? Are we to believe this simply because it prevailed? In fact, did it really prevail? What independent facts support any of it? According to what we are expected to believe, Paul was not even a companion of Jesus (I question the logical aptness of this in my blog entry A Logical God?) But when Paul speaks of “the Lord’s” teachings, he quotes OT verses (from the Septuagint no doubt) rather than any of the discourses we find in the gospel narratives. The record shows that things were in complete flux even before it all got written down!

Consider the various gospel accounts. Scholars are in wide agreement that Mark is the earliest of the extant written gospel narratives and that Matthew and Luke were written in part as re-workings of Mark’s model. It is instructive to examine where Matthew and Luke follow and depart from Mark’s original, and - notably - where they revised certain portions of Mark for their own narratives. G. A. Wells, in his book The Jesus Legend (1996), gives many examples of where Matthew and Luke "adopt... Marcan material equally freely; and they would surely not have done this if Mark had been accepted as based on Peter's firsthand experience" (p. 76). Even more, I would add, that the authors of Matthew and Luke surely would not have revised Marcan material in their own gospel narratives if they had thought that they were handling "the Word of God."

And think of the nearly two millennia since the early days of Christianity, how many ways it has changed, how many filters it’s been run through, how many different versions there are floating around today. There’s a version (or two hundred) to suit every believer!

And yes, Christianity is very much subject to rejection. I rejected it. Many have rejected it. How could this be possible if Christianity were not subject to rejection? Hays would not be able to rail against “apostates” as he does if this were not the case. The deep chasms splintering the religious mind into compartmentalized fragments are indeed also wide!

Hays tries to support his unargued assertion:
To take a comparison, suppose I asked you: Is there any amount of evidence that would change your view concerning the reality of time? The short answer is no.
Why should one consider his views about time off-limits from rational scrutiny? Is every “view concerning the reality of time” somehow immune to “revision and rejection”? Why suppose this?

Hays elaborates:
It's hard to see how my belief in the reality of time could be falsifiable. How could my experience of time be illusory? What kind of evidence could even possibly count against the reality of time? Time is too fundamental.
Hays is having a hard time maintaining focus here. What specifically is he unwilling to question – his view of the reality of time, his beliefs about time, his experience of time, the reality of time itself? There is, on the one hand, one’s experience of something; there is, on the other, his identification of the nature and cause of that experience. Here Hays seems to be blurring them all into one inscrutable mush. But let us ask here: What does the bible say about time? What is time according to the bible?

Hays raised a third objection:
iii) Not every view has an alternative. You can change your views if you have something to fall back on.
Some might argue that a denial of a view constitutes an alternative. Maybe not a good one, but an alternative of sorts nonetheless.

But in regard to the axiom of existence, what does the alternative look like? The alternative to the fundamental, explicit recognition that there is a reality is some expression of denying that there is a reality. But that’s not viable. Indeed, it performatively contradicts itself and can only lead to stolen concepts and evasions.

What is the alternative to the primacy of existence? The alternative to the primacy of existence is some expression of the primacy of consciousness, whether this takes a personal form (e.g., my consciousness holds metaphysical primacy over reality), the social form (e.g., the collective consciousness of “Society” holds metaphysical primacy over reality), or the cosmic form (e.g., a supernatural consciousness holds metaphysical primacy over reality), or any murky blend of these. But regardless of its specific expression, the primacy of consciousness performatively contradicts itself and leads to yet more stolen concepts and evasions. The primacy of consciousness intellectually disables a worldview from its very foundations.

Hays asks:
But what if the view in question hits bedrock?
I’ve been asking essentially this for years now. But theists have either ignored me or sought to evade the question. But none can give me any good reasons to discard the primacy of existence. Indeed, the primacy of existence is the metaphysical precondition for any and all good reasons.

So in sum, I would say that it is possible – indeed desirable – to change one’s views if they turn out to be untrue. And I would add to this that it is also important for an individual to examine the views (or “beliefs”) he holds to determine whether or not they really are true. Thinkers should ask themselves what their starting point is, consider honestly whether or not whatever it is they consider to be their starting point is in fact conceptually irreducible, whether or not it is true, whether or not it actually anchors one’s knowledge to fact rather than imagination and emotional commitments. Is their starting point something they acquire awareness of by looking outward - i.e., at the facts we discover existing in the world independent of our conscious activity, or by looking inward - i.e., to the content of our imagination, our wishing, our feelings? How can I acquire awareness of the Christian god by looking outward? If I cannot discover and have awareness of the Christian god by looking outward, but instead must turn my attention inward and consult the contents of my mind to find the Christian god, how can I reliably distinguish the Christian god from something that is merely imaginary?

by Dawson Bethrick


Unknown said...

Talking about the Primacy of Existence, have you ever come across someone who was de-converted by it?

I may be the only one.

I was an agnostic deist as a younger child, then I became Christian at sixteen, and after that I began to doubt. I was utterly terrified by the implications of being a mere biological organism as opposed to a biological organism with a spooky ghost in it that went on to eat grapes in the clouds forever.

Late one night I was looking out of my window at the stars outside, my mind swinging between theism and atheism rapidly as my doubt sent me to the latter, and my fear of death to the latter again. This rapid change made me notice one thing. The stars, which in my mind were switching from creations of an invisible artist to clouds of collected gas, were not themselves changing. I then realized that my fears did not sway the stars, and nor would they sway reality as a whole. Thus I concluded that emotion should not cloud my view of reality.

A simple realization, but a massive one nonetheless. In fact, the Primacy of Existence is one of the best weapons we have in our arsenal to combat superstition. So many theists and new-agers make arguments based on emotion, and we would do well to remind them of this primacy.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Hi Cameron,

Fascinating report! Thanks so much for sharing. I can personally relate to much of what you have stated here. Noticing that it was my mind that was switching back and forth about the same thing – while that thing remained fixed and stable – was key to my realizing that I was merely imagining, and in a context of profound fear to boot (in religion, fear and imagination work closely together to estrange a mind from fact and truth). One of the most difficult things for me psychologically was admitting to myself that I was imagining all these things – an overseeing god, a risen Jesus who paid for my sins, demons and devils which were out to cause mischief in my life, etc. Once I summoned up the courage to admit all this to myself, it all began to disintegrate very rapidly.

So while I did not know it as “the primacy of existence” at the time – in fact, I had no philosophical grasp of such a principle at the time, even though I had studied some philosophy by that point – my religious “undoing” was tied directly to the my growing awareness of the relationship between my mind (internal, subjective, mind-dependent imaginings) and everything else (external, objective, mind-independent reality). Later, as I got knee-deep into my studies of Rand’s writings, I began to understand this relationship with a clarity which I had never known before (and which, I’m convinced, I would get nowhere else).

Have I known anyone who was “deconverted” by the primacy of existence? I’m afraid I haven’t kept a list. De-converting from a religious view of the world can be extremely complex and have a number of jointly operating causes. But I do remember one fellow who was arguing with me vehemently back in 1999. He was gung ho for Christianity and was quite vicious in his attacks against me and my views (this was a mock email forum, which was common back in those days). I stuck with him and was patient and tried to explain my position. Over the course of several weeks turned a couple months, he started to calm down a bit, let down his defenses, and began to consider what I had been telling him. A few months went by and I got a private message from him. He wrote (to this effect): “This morning, I woke up an atheist.” A few weeks later, after more discussion, he wrote me again: “This morning, I woke up an Objectivist.” He had ordered some of Rand’s books and began feasting on them. We’re still friends to this day. My points about the primacy of existence had definitely sunk in.

There’s a lot more to say about this and in response to your comments, but I have to get ready for work now. But thanks, Cameron, for your message. I’d love to hear more.


Justin Hall said...

Ydemoc, Robert, Photo, and all the other regulars, I have been afforded the opportunity to finally meet the author of this blog, Mr Bethrick. Yesterday we sat down for a chat over breakfast where we discussed various topics. I just wanted to tell you that at first I felt like a groupie being invited to meet the band behind stage. However I can now assure you that Mr Bethrick is simply a mortal man that eats his breakfast just like the rest of us, one mouthful at a time. Yup guys, he is just a man flesh and bone after all. Still I had a great time and glad I got to meet him.

David Barwick said...

Haha! Good to hear, Justin.

Ydemoc said...


Very cool. I'm glad that the two of you had a chance to meet. Wish I could have been there, but that would've required at least a 16 hour drive up I-5.

But perhaps someday!


Bahnsen Burner said...


It was wonderful meeting you finally and having a great conversation that was so difficult to bring to a close. Though I'm guessing the wait staff were probably wondering when we'd leave. Time really does fly when you're having fun.

And yes, everyone, it's true, I do eat breakfast. I also eat dinner. I wear shoes and also breathe air. Justin can confirm that I'm pretty average in most respects.

Now we need some of you others to come join us next time so that we can finally start that cult everyone accuses us of belonging to!


Anonymous said...

As I read the OP I keep singing in my head

«You've got to change your evil ways, baby, before I stop loving you»

Anyway, yes, let's meet any time we can. I live far from California, but, being California, some excuse will come. It's California, right?

Justin Hall said...

Sorry Photo, its Oregon. By the way Dawson I have noticed the only people that pronounce the state correctly are natives, people that have lived here a while like myself and oddly enough people in the UK! I have to go to London to hear it said right while people in say New York for example get it consistently wrong. Sorry its just a little pet peeve of mine. For the record everyone it is Or-uh-gin, not Or-ee-gone! grumble grumble...

Anonymous said...

Ups. OK then. Will be looking for excuses to visit Oregon (and opportunities to be corrected every time I mispronounce it).

Anonymous said...

Is it absolutely true that it's absolutely wrong to pronounce Oregon as Or-ee-gone?

Justin Hall said...

I gave it some thought and realized if you just say the word origin and pronounce the g as if it really is a g and not the j sound then you have the correct way of saying Oregon. I am far more forgiving and understanding when outsiders get such tongue twisters as Willamette River or Multnomah Country wrong:)

samonedo said...

People who are only trying to feel good and get the unearned will not change their minds based on evidence because they are being driven by emotion, misterious reasons they are afraid to identify. They will rather question reality itself than accept that such and such evidence is relevant to to anything

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for not only your interest in my writing, but also your very well presented rebuttal of some of Hays points against my original article. I have offered to debate Hays on these issues, so we'll see if he accepts and how that goes.

Thanks again, and for all those who liked my article, it's actually an excerpt from one of my recent books titled "Holy Sh!t: The Insanity of Blind Faith" which some may enjoy reading.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Casper,

It’s good to hear from you. Thanks for dropping by my blog and leaving your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed my post referencing Hays’ attempts to interact with your questions (at his most full-witted I’m sure).

In fact, I started writing a reaction to many of the points in Hay’s post, but I ended up only publishing what I have above on my blog. Time is in short supply. The rest remains in “draft” stage.

I’d be surprised if Hays would accept your invite to a debate – debate over what exactly? Though I’m not expert on all things Haysian, I don’t think I’ve seen him participate in any formal debates, in person or in writing. Citing Aliens, would this be a stand-up fight, or a bug-hunt?

If you end up planning a debate with him (or anyone) and you want to kick around ideas with me beforehand, you’re certainly welcome to email me at: Just make sure your subject line has something relevant to my blog – I get a lot of email messages, both spam as well as private correspondence relating to my blogging activity.

Also, be aware (in case you aren’t already) of the fact that I approach philosophy from an Objectivist point of view. This may be new to you, in which case you can review some of the posts on my blog and, of course, ask questions. I’m always happy to discuss these matters.