Wednesday, December 27, 2017

"What would convince you?"

Often Christians seeking to defend their religious views will ask non-believers what they would accept as convincing evidence that their god-beliefs are true. This is a common baiting tactic deployed in an effort to expose some vulnerability, either personal or philosophical, or to corner them into making some damning concession.

For example, in their radio discussion, Greg Bahnsen asked George H. Smith, author of Atheism: The Case Against God, what he would consider convincing evidence that the Christian god is real. In response to this question, Smith quipped something to the effect that a “giant hand” reaching down from the sky and grabbing him by the scruff of the neck would probably get his attention. Smith states, “that would get me thinking.” (Find the audio recording here; a transcript is available here.)
Of course, I think it would be instructive for believers to explain why they believe that a god exists and then compare the different explanations believers give for why they believe. It would also be instructive to compare their own explanations for why they believe with their approaches to apologetics. Were they convinced by the very strategies and arguments they use to defend their belief? Typically the answer here is no, they weren’t. Rather, most often they were raised to believe in supernatural beings since a very young age (see Van Til’s own autobiographical account in his Why I Believe in God), and given this impression so early in life it has persisted as a mental habit that has escaped rational scrutiny, typically through concerted reinforcement and gravitation towards those things, whatever they may be, which have served to confirm their theistic biases. And while many may have gone through periods of wrestling with their faith commitment and sought out justifications for their beliefs, they never fully broke free of the metaphysics of wishing makes it so that was impressed on them without correction throughout their lives.

This same general view of the world, where consciousness holds some special power over its objects – even if it is not one’s own consciousness (someone’s consciousness must!), is the underlying, subliminal presupposition accepted implicitly by default even among many identifying as non-believers as well as those who have embraced religious faith in adulthood that was not endorsed in their childhood. Without accepting the primacy of consciousness, even if that acceptance is unconscious and unacknowledged (and so much the worse if it is), the human mind would not be so vulnerable to religious suggestion.

In the understanding of reality, of the world, and of man, that I have explored and accepted over my lifetime – generally encapsulated as the primacy of existence, I have made the conscious effort to keep explicitly in mind the very real distinction between consciousness and its objects and the proper relationship between the one and the other. No religious teachings ever encouraged me to do this. Nor did any teachers I’ve had, whether secular or religious, throughout my life. The primacy of existence is a fundamental principle that was hiding unidentified in plain sight well into my adulthood.

But even before I made this discovery and grasped its significance for everything I’ve ever observed and learned, I suffered from an insatiable intellectual curiosity that burned in me since the dawn of my consciousness. This desire to discover and understand persisted in me against the backwards grains of a society increasingly sedated by every form of distraction, whether it was the immediate gratification of cheap entertainment, pressures to be “cool” or to congratulate oneself by climbing aboard the latest “awareness” bandwagon (think of pink ribbons worn on one’s lapel signifying to the world “I care more than you”), or busying oneself by fussing over sorting recyclables, taking up the latest “eco” cause, campaigning for vegan alternatives to the foods I enjoy, etc. It persisted even when I got caught in the spider web of religious indoctrination.

And apparently this trait of mine stood out. As a pastor once told me, “you know too much.” For his evangelical interests, that was probably one of the worst things he could have ever confessed to me.

But in fact, everyone knows implicitly that existence does not conform to conscious activity. We find people confessing this fundamental, inescapable fact unawares all the time, only most people do not recognize it, for they have not securely identified it themselves. It is a truth that lingers forever right before their eyes, as ever-present as sensing and perceiving anything, as present as every waking moment.

If a believer is authentically interested in what would need to be satisfied in order to even warranted reconsideration of my position on the question of god-belief, I point to the need for reason and evidence on some very rudimentary matters, such as:
1. Evidence that consciousness holds metaphysical primacy over its objects.  
2. Evidence that wishing makes it so.  
3. An objectively reliable means of distinguishing between what believers call "God" and what they are merely imagining.  
4. Evidence that contradictions exist in reality.  
5. Evidence that stolen concepts are not fallacious.  
6. In the case of the Christian god, its promises of the efficacy of prayer as found in the gospels would need to check out. Unfortunately they don't.  
7. Some means other than reason which I can reliably use to discover and validate knowledge of the world we find ourselves in by looking outward - i.e., to look inward and "know" what is true outside our minds.  
8. Evidence that a pebble that I find in my backyard came into existence by an act of consciousness.  
Put it this way: in a very fundamental sense, asking me what it would take to convince me that a god exists is strikingly similar to asking: What would convince you that square circles exist?

Then again, when asked the question “What would convince you?” by Christians, I want to ask in return: What’s more important: Being Christian, or being honest? For if I am honest about what I can discover and confirm about the nature of reality by an epistemological methodology suited to the kind of consciousness which I possess – i.e., by means of reason, I cannot draw the conclusion that reality is the product of conscious activity.

But I don’t get the impression from apologists that they truly desire an honest dialogue. Rather, I get the impression that they want to sharpen their apologetic tools by driving non-believers into inescapable corners as a means of confirming their confessional commitments. And the purpose of doing so seems to be nothing more than to protect a confessional investment. That such an approach is not at all even close to being on a par with satisfying genuine curiosity, is demonstrated in the fact that goading non-believers into confessing “I don’t know” does not slow apologists down, but rather energizes them to continue pushing their talking points, as if they were sharks smelling blood in the sea.

Thus in response to the question “What would convince you [that a god exists]?” one might be forgiven for asking in return: Do you not think it’s possible for someone to honestly not believe that a god exists?

Even worse, I’m always stymied how the question of starting points never seems to enter into the mix here. So what exactly is the believer’s starting point, if not the very position he’s insisting that everyone else adopt?

Most people operate on a mixed metaphysics, implicitly recognizing in their daily activity that the objects of consciousness do not conform to conscious activity, but owing to the fact that they have not identified explicitly this relationship between consciousness and it objects as a fundamental principle, they often violate this principle in the inner world of their mental activity. It’s as though so long as they aren’t reminded of a fundamental truth, they’re free to ignore it and hold positions which directly violate that truth.

Consider for example the fact that most people do not run around expecting doors to open on command or food to populate their cupboards upon wishing. One does not come to a clearing in the forest and declare “Let there be a house here” and a house comes into existence out of nothing. They recognize implicitly that reality does not conform to their conscious activity. But since they have not grasped the implications which this fact has for their outlook on the world, on life, on knowledge and morality, they see no problem in accepting beliefs that are not supportable by objective analysis, e.g., belief in ghosts, belief in supernatural beings, belief in an afterlife, treatment of good and evil along the lines of Star Wars’ “The Force,” acceptance of deterministic views of human nature, even secularized counterparts to such notions such as “the collective consciousness,” the “public good,” etc.

In the realm of values, it is very common for thinkers to assume that values are inherently subjective. We find this assumption among many secularists as well as religionists: values ultimately reduce to preferences and desires, not to facts. While postmodernists insist that values are social constructs originating in one form or another of group-think (one group prefers this kind of values while another group prefers another kind of values), religionists tell us that values are handed down from a supernatural realm by some sort of fiat decree (even the Christian god has its preferences). No tie to objective reality is involved in either case. (Cf. John Robbins, who affirmed the following in his paper An Introduction to Gordon Clark: “The distinction between right and wrong depends entirely upon the commands of God. There is no natural law that makes some actions right and others wrong.”) Both schools of thought not only treat preferences and desires as irreducible primaries having no contextual relationship to a mind-independent reality, but also treat reality as though it followed suit in response to those preferences and desires. Whether it is by “society” or by a divine agency, whatever is accepted as the basis for distinguishing right from wrong must itself have been determined by a form of consciousness which just pulls it out of thin air. Sheer, unbridled force of will is the ultimate standard of normativity.

In fact, contrary to this assumption, there is such a category as objective moral values and their basis is the facts pertaining to man’s nature as a living organism which possesses a volitional consciousness capable for conceptual integration. Man faces a fundamental alternative, namely life vs. death, and in order to live he needs food, water, shelter, protection, reason, work, philosophy, happiness, etc., regardless of what anyone desires or prefers; one can “prefer” that man can survive without work, for example, but that won’t make our need for identifying and producing values go away.

So while it is extremely common for thinkers to adopt a mixed metaphysics – i.e., a view of reality which on the one hand acknowledges that wishing doesn’t make it so while on the other affirming in one form or another that wishing does make it so, the problem is that such an internally inconsistent hodgepodge is simply unworkable: one horn of the packaged contradiction while hold primacy over the other.

But contradictions do not exist in reality, and the very concept of truth presupposes the primacy of existence. A mixed metaphysics could only be possible if some truths hinged on the primacy of consciousness while the primacy of existence provided the basis for others. But which truths presuppose the metaphysics of wishing makes it so? What are some examples of truths that are true because someone merely wishes, prefers, hopes, imagines, or feels (emotionally) that they are true? What in reality do we find actually conforming to conscious activity?

If one wants to adopt a mixed metaphysics, what standard would he enlist in determining when the primacy of existence applies and when the primacy of consciousness applies? Wouldn’t that standard itself have to presuppose either the primacy of existence or the primacy of consciousness? It could not presuppose both simultaneously. Indeed, what would objectivity mixed with subjectivism even look like, if not a haphazard, internally inconsistent mélange of views? In which case, all objectivity would be obliterated.

So in conclusion, there are in fact a number of issues and questions to address when considering the question “What would convince you that God exists?” And generally speaking, the important ones are wholly accessible to any honest thinker, and yet so easily brushed aside as though they simply didn’t count – when in fact they do!

by Dawson Bethrick


The Trainer said...

Great insights, Dawson.

I’ve been a student of objectivism for about 4 years now. Rand’s epistemology has changed my life. It’s added a clarity to my thinking that has far surpassed all the cumulative philosophical reading I had done for over 25 years.

Thanks to you and your website (of which I’ve read and studied every submisssion and exchange), I have yet to find a Christian capable of contending with objectivism’s insights into human cognition, the hierarchical nature of knowledge (and its implications) and the emphasis on the primacy of existence.

Why are there so few people aware of Rand’s glorious contribution to epistemology? The four atheist horsemen (Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and Dennett) are intellectual lightweights compared to how objectivism interfaces with Christian claims. As you rightly note, the question of god reduces to why one doesn’t believe in square circles. But the aforementioned horsemen seem to speak as if there just isn’t enough information to pronounce positively on the existence of god - never pausing long enough to make sense of the metaphysical orientation such a claim entails.

Anyway, I wish there were more sites like yours, although yours would be a hard one to match.

- James

Ydemoc said...

Hey Dawson,

Happy New Year!

Here are the first five points on your list of "what would need to be satisfied in order to even warrant reconsideration of [your] position on the question of god-belief":

1. Evidence that consciousness holds metaphysical primacy over its objects.
2. Evidence that wishing makes it so.
3. An objectively reliable means of distinguishing between what believers call "God" and what they are merely imagining.
4. Evidence that contradictions exist in reality.
5. Evidence that stolen concepts are not fallacious.

What hit me right away about points 1, 2, 4 and 5 is that for any of these to obtain (as if that were even possible), it would serve to undercut the very foundation upon which the very concept "evidence" relies.

For example, if there is "[e]vidence that contradictions exist in reality" ( i.e., that something might not be what it is), then how could we ever be sure that "evidence" really IS evidence? Or that a question really is a question? Or that a turkey isn't a bugle? Or that your latest entry really isn't really a basketball? Or that my opening greeting of "Happy New Year!" wasn't really a gas pump. Etc., etc., etc.

We wouldn't be able to ever be sure.

As you correctly point out later on in your piece:

"Indeed, what would objectivity mixed with subjectivism even look like, if not a haphazard, internally inconsistent mélange of views? In which case, all objectivity would be obliterated."

Thanks once again for another entry!