Sunday, October 23, 2016

Exchange with a Presuppositionalist

Over the past few weeks I’ve been engaged in an exchange with a presuppositionalist apologist over on the comments section of one his blog’s entries which dates from several years ago. He posts under the moniker ANNOYED PINOY (abbreviated as “AP” hereafter) and is a frequent visitor at Triablogue. The blog of his where we’ve been dialoguing (he’s apparently got several blogs) is called Miscellaneous Lane, and the specific entry where we have been dialoguing is: Definitions of Atheism (posted 4 Dec. 2013). I thought readers of this blog may find the exchange interesting, so I wanted to post a link to it.

Below are a few of the more notable highlights from our exchange.

As is often the case when theists are confronted with the axiom of existence, controversy flared up right on schedule:
AP: “Existence doesn't exist. Existence is a property of things that do exist.”  
Me: I’m having a real hard time understanding what you’re trying to say here. So, in your view, existence is a property of things that do exist, and yet this property itself doesn’t exist? Yikes! How does that work? Is this from the bible some place? What does the bible say about these matters?  
…In fact, it’s doubly confusing to contemplate your statement and then go over to James Anderson’s latest post in which he lists six things that people take for granted on which he bases his case for the Christian worldview, and the first thing he lists is – you guessed it – existence! Perhaps Anderson doesn’t know that “existence doesn’t exist”?  
… But I’m still wondering how you can say on the one hand, “Existence doesn’t exist” and then, on the other, affirm that “existence is a property of things that do exist.” In fact, I think you summed up a major contradiction which is implicit in analytic philosophy and which Objectivism expressly rejects (and avoids!).  
As I have explained many, many times in my writings on these matters, as Objectivism uses the concept ‘existence’ in the axiom “existence exists,” it is a collective noun denoting anything and everything that exists. As you look around yourself and see things that exist, that’s existence. The concept ‘existence’ is the widest of all concepts and includes all of what you personally perceive and more without specifying any further. It doesn’t need to specify any further - it’s a starting point. It is very much like saying “reality is real.”  
And to your point, the task of the axiom of existence is not to “tell us anything about the nature of reality” beyond what it affirms and implies. What’s important to note is that the axiom of existence (a) is obviously true, (b) is conceptually irreducible and (c) therefore fundamental, (d) must be true to question or dispute it, and (e) implicit in all thought, judgment, choices, etc. In fact, one cannot affirm any alternative to the axiom of existence as one’s starting point without implicitly presupposing it. I elaborate on the task of the axioms in many of my writings, including ones I linked to above.  
…It’s always baffled me how critics of Objectivism either simply cannot understand what Objectivism teaches on these matters, or insist that what Objectivism teaches means something other than what it teaches. Either way, they seem hell-bent on disallowing Objectivism to speak for itself. I have my suspicions why this is the case though.  
So again, please explain, from your worldview, how it can be the case on the one hand that “existence doesn’t exist” and yet “existence is a property of things that do exist.” How can these two statements be integrated without contradiction? That is what you need to explain here…  
AP: “I prefaced my comments by saying that I wasn't sure if I'm saying what I want to say correctly. The exact quote is [i.e. I said], "People better at philosophy and grammar have expressed what I'm about to attempt to say imperfectly." And that sentence was also a link to those Triablogue blogposts. My worldview doesn't stand or fall with that critique. I can take it back if, upon further reflection, I realize it actually inconsistent with my worldview and/or irrational, non-sensical or a strawman representation et cetera.”  
Me: Just for the record – earlier you had affirmed: “Existence doesn’t exist. Existence is a property of things that do exist.” Do you still affirm this? Or do you take it back now? I just want to be clear. Do you understand that this statement is self-contradictory? Are you willing to re-consider the statement “existence exists”? Do you still think that “existence doesn’t exist”? Or are you now starting to understand that existence in fact does exist?  
AP: “It depends on what one means by ‘existence’”  
Me: What did you mean by ‘existence’ when you stated it? Can you state your definition, if you have one? Essentially, you’re saying that existence is a property that doesn’t exist. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this. And when I ask if you still mean it, you respond with “It depends.” But it was your statement.  
…Regarding your assertion that “existence doesn’t exist,” I’m still having a hard time understanding your position on this matter. So let’s try again.  
In your recent spate of comments, [AP] wrote: “Manata's explaination of one way the term ‘existence’ is used as distinct from existents is clear. I agree with his conclusion per that understanding/definition of existence.”  
I guess we just have different standards when it comes to being clear. For one, I didn’t see a definition of the concept ‘existence’ in Manata’s statement; he did say it’s a universal, but that’s not a definition – it’s just naming a category in which the concept belongs. Also, upon closer examination, his use of the distinction between ‘existence’ and ‘existent’ is unhelpful in its own right, and it does nothing to untangle what appears to be a blatant contradiction on your part.  
Again, your statement: “Existence doesn’t exist. Existence is a property of things that do exist.”  
A clear reading of this can only mean that you think existence is a property which doesn’t exist and that, according to your metaphysical viewpoint, “things that do exist” have this property that doesn’t exist. In fact, I know of no reasonable way to understand it otherwise. So I’m looking for your help here.  
Unfortunately, as I had stated earlier, the statements you quoted from Paul Manata are quite unhelpful here. What’s curious is that you haven’t made much effort to explain why you think Manata’s statements do help untangle what by all accounts appears to be a blatant contradiction.  
Now, at one point, you did state in regard to your statement: “I can take it back if, upon further reflection, I realize it actually inconsistent with my worldview and/or irrational, non-sensical or a strawman representation et cetera.” But when I asked you, in the interest of clarity, if you were taking it back, you came back with “it depends” and went into a digression about monism and smuggling and what Objectivism seems, per your limited understanding of it, to do. The upshot is that you haven’t taken it back, so I’m inferring from this and your own statements that your statement above is actually consistent with your worldview.  
As for the distinction between ‘existence’ and ‘existents’, I don’t think anyone is denying any distinction here: on my view, the concept ‘existence’ is a collective noun denoting anything and everything that exists; the concept ‘existent’ individuates specific existing things (e.g., “this existent” as opposed to “that existent”), whether they are entities in their own right, or attributes of entities (for both do in fact exist).  
But perhaps there was something in the Manata quote that I missed? In fact, I don’t think Manata fares any better here. Like you, he asserted that “’existence’ doesn’t ‘exist’,” but he qualified this (without explanation) as being the case “on a materialist or nominalist understanding of the world.” (Why “a materialist or nominalist understanding of the world” is relevant here is a mystery; what is *Manata’s* view? What is *your* view, AP?) But he seems to agree that “existence doesn’t exist” when he says “I can kick a rock, I can't kick ‘existence’" only then to repeat what he had just stated about this being the case “on a materialist or nominalist understanding of the world,” which means he doesn’t move any closer to presenting any kind of argument here. Notably, he does not, at least in the quoted section, indicate an understanding of the world in which existence does exist (cf. Objectivism). He also stated ‘Existence’ is a universal that can be said to be exemplified by exisTENTS.” So, “exisTENTS” on this view are, presumably, real things, but they “exemplify” a “universal” that doesn’t exist. That’s some “metaphysic” there!  
Frankly, when Manata originally made his statement, I got the impression that he was simply trying to be contrary in order to discredit Objectivism, plying his habit of –ism-dropping to make it seem more credible and scholarly, when in fact it’s quite the opposite. It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now: just as 10 years ago, his statement still ends up as a murky mess of contradictions.
Also, I had mentioned that a critical problem I find with theistic arguments is that “no matter which argument is presented, I always find that I still have no alternative but to *imagine* the god whose existence is said to be so proved.”

I followed this up with these additional points:
I wrote: I know when I am imagining something: it is a volitional exercise – one chooses to imagine.  
AP: “Dreams are usually not voluntary.”  
I’m not talking about dreams. I’m talking about the faculty which I know I use when I contemplate Christianity’s (and other religions’) claims, namely the imagination. I presume you know when you’re imagining, do you not? If not, then this needs to be addressed, and quickly! But if you do know when you’re imagining, I’m supposing you’re very much like me: you choose to imagine – it’s a volitional activity. There was a time when I was a Christian myself; I was raised to believe this stuff. I’m guessing you were too. So was Van Til (see here). But as I tried and tried harder and harder to believe what Christianity wanted me to believe, I began to realize that all along, I was suppressing a fundamental fact that for a long time I didn’t want to face, and which I was in fact encouraged to ignore, namely that all the while my imagination was actively involved in all my god-belief activity. I was in fact trying to live a pretentious lie, lying to myself that what I was only imagining was real, when in fact it was merely only imaginary. Eventually I summoned up the strength to be honest to myself and admit that in fact I was simply imagining the Christian god and all that is supposed to come with it: belief in heaven and hell, believe in angels and demons, belief in predestination and prayer, etc. Once I admitted that all of this was imaginary, the whole artifice sloughed off me like a dead skin that I never needed in the first place. And that was the beginning of my intellectual liberation.  
So, while dreams may not be voluntary, I know that imagination is volitional, and I know that I have no alternative but to employ my imagination when contemplating supernatural notions. I really don’t think you’re any different from me in this respect. After all, you’re human, you have a mind, and you too can imagine things, right?
My exchange with AP has now come to a standstill, which is fine. I think I conveyed the more important things that I wanted to get across, and hopefully readers of his blog find our exchange and take a few things away to think about. Then again, as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water…

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...

Hi Dawson,

Enjoyed it! One highlight (among many) was how you addressed the hangups AP seemed to have and the assertions that AP made regarding "change."

You wrote:

Ask yourself: Does the fact that “everything that Objectivists observe with their eyes is changing” itself change, or is it unchanging? In fact, the notion that “everything is in flux” is misguided – such a notion is self-contradictory: is the (presumed) fact that “everything is in flux” itself in flux? Blank out. It’s hard to see how one can miss such obvious errors here, but we see them repeated over and over as if they were solid, intransigent truths. Clearly they aren’t.

Thanks again for the entry!



Regarding Ydemoc's quotation of Dawson, I didn't address the issue because Dawson didn't distinguish between an internal and external critique. We don't share the same worldview. We may both accept something (e.g. the reality of change and of persons) but for different reasons and justifications. Nor did Dawson address more fundamental issues. From the Christian point of view we can account for how it is we can have notions, rational thoughts and interact with and gain input from our environment. That's because we're designed to have rational properly functioning minds and physical organs to accurately sense our environment. See Plantinga's EAAN which, even if it fails, nevertheless shows why theism can make sense of minds and generally reliable sensory organs whereas atheism undermines our confidence in our cognitive and sensory capacities/capabilities. Most atheist are materialists and so need to overcome the high hurtle of Eliminative Materialism (which I mentioned in my comments repeatedly and which Dawson never addressed).

At least Heraclitus (a BCE non-Christian) attempted to overcome the problem by appealing to the unchanging immaterial logos to explain our ability to observe change. Since, if everything were changing, we'd never be able to notice that change because we'd also be changing along with it. Even to the point of changing our thoughts such that we have no thoughts or memories. However, many (most?) Objectivists are atheists and most (not all) atheists are materialists and physicalists. But as I pointed out in my comments, matter is either unchanging (cf. modern "block view of the universe" in modern physics) or constantly changing. Either view poses a problem for atheists.

To quote Norman Geisler:

Two points can be made in response to the view, springing from Heraclitus, that all is in flux. First, Heraclitus himself did not believe that everything is relative. In fact, he held that there was an unchanging logos beneath all change, by which change could be measured. He saw this as an absolute law by which all humans should live.
Second, if one carries the idea of change all the way, as Cratylus trid, then he uses change to destroy change. For if everything is changing and nothing is constant, then there is no way to measure the change. Everything cannot be changing, or we would not be able to know it. END QUOTE
Taken from HERE

Geisler mentioned Cratylus. One source states:

Aristotle quotes the Socratic writer Aeschines of Sphettus, who described Cratylus as waving his hands and hissing while he spoke. This semi-independent
testimony can be interpreted as showing us a Cratylus who still believes in
the power of language – he does, after all, still speak – but who is already
adjusting language to accommodate the extreme fluidity of its objects. His
motion of the hands, and likewise his hissing of the tongue, which according
to the analysis of primary sounds in Plato’s one way in which the human voice conveys motion, look like part of Cratylus’
increasingly desperate struggle to fit language to the world’s fluidity, before
his final decision to give up and just point.


This is why I kept asking Dawson whether he was a monist or pluralist in terms of ontology and whether he believed in stasis or change. Materialism cannot make sense of immaterial thoughts and propositions. That's why in my comments to Dawson I linked to James Anderson's works on the topic. Without addressing the fundamental issues I brought up in my original posts Dawson is jumping into the middle of a long philosophical discussion that has lasted millennia with unargued assumptions. However, as I said in my original comments, Dawson may have argued for them and addressed my objections and criticisms in his voluminous writings.

As I pointed out, to get to the next level in our conversation would take too much time to express, learn and then finally address each others more in-depth views/positions.

Anyway, I did enjoy our conversation Dawson and "wish and hope" [grin] the best for you and your family. I definitely learned some things from you and hopefully you learned a few things from me. :-)

95BSharpshooter said...

Re: AP

If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, then baffle them with bullshit!


My final concluding thoughts:

In Christianity one can make sense of the realty of both change (and its concomitant contingent truths) as well as necessary unchanging eternal truths because there is a relationship and sometimes an integration between the changing material world and the unchanging immaterial absolute God.

The reality or non-reality of either change OR stasis, OR of both [along with the related problem of the one and the many] are some things everyone atheist, Christian, Buddhist etc. have to deal with. I know the beginnings of how Christianity solve these and many other philosophical problems. Hopefully, Objectivists also have consistent solutions.

Anonymous said...

It's always baffling how Christian can make such a mess out of trivialities. Maybe that's exactly the point, right? By making a mess out of trivialities they ensure that explanations will be difficult for them to understand. How can we explain mistakes at such most basic level? How can we explain mistakes about things so trivial that a three year old would not be as confused as a Christian? Even worse, how can we explain mistakes about stuff so trivial to Christians who have messed up their conceptual framework so badly? Perhaps beyond repair? Where do we even begin?