Monday, May 27, 2019

More on Wilson's Fizzing about Fizzing

In last month’s entry I examined a couple paragraphs from Douglas Wilson’s opening statement in his debate with Theodore Drange in which Wilson attributes to atheism the view that thinking is essentially a type of chemical reaction and is therefore indistinguishable from the fizzing of an agitated soft drink.

A reader sent me an email asking if I had any thoughts on the paragraph in Wilson’s opening statement that came after the two that I have already examined. I did indicate in my post that if readers express interest in exploring Wilson’s debating strategy any further, I’d be willing to do so. So, let’s dive in! 

Picking up where my previous entry leaves off, Wilson proceeds to declare:
The atheist has to explain, on his assumption, what the essential difference is between the thoughts in his brain and any other chemical reaction. Why are some chemical reactions just there, neither true nor false, like baking soda and vinegar, while other chemical reactions can be categorized as true or false? On what basis can we say that atheist fizzings correspond to the external world while Christian fizzings do not? Why do we not consistently categorize them all as simply fizzings? The answer should be obvious; this would include the fizzing which made us want to categorize them in this way. We cannot say, "No fizzings can be thought to be true, including the fizzings which constitute this sentence." If we say it, we contradict ourselves. If we refuse to say it, in a misguided attempt at consistency, we contradict ourselves another way. Why be consistent? Our attempt at consistency assumes the need for consistency and rationality, which of course is inconsistent -- making it, in a weird kind of way, consistent again.
First of all, what reason does Wilson give for his claim that “the atheist has to explain… what the essential difference is between the thoughts in his brain and any other chemical reaction”? Theistic apologists routinely, and typically without any argument at all (as Wilson does here), presume some authority to shoulder non-believers with layers of burdens. Wilson does not even establish that thoughts are a type of chemical reaction in the first place, but yet the burden he assigns to “the atheist” clearly requires the non-believer to make this assumption. On the face of it, Wilson appears to have made a category mistake as wrongheaded as assuming that the concept ‘skyscraper’ subsumed all acts of swimming. In his haste to layer “the atheist” with all kinds of burdens, Wilson neglects his own.

So the initial response to Wilson here would be to inquire how he, or anyone, came to categorize mental activity as a species of chemical reaction in the first place. As I had mentioned in my previous entry, conceptual activity is volitional in nature. Thus it is not simply a reaction, like the chemicals in soda effervescing. Consciousness is an attribute of biological organisms, and soda pop is not a biological organism; soda does not act in order to continue existing, nor does it face the fundamental alternative of life vs. death. And I have yet to see any scientist identify the chemical compound that is thinking, let alone identify any chemical compound that is volitional and self-directing. So the assumption behind Wilson’s debating strategy here appears to be completely without warrant. And even though Wilson himself likely does not accept the assumption himself (he probably does not believe that John 1:14 is properly translated as “Ant the fizzing were made flesh”), he clearly believes that “the atheist” must assume this.

But on what basis can Wilson, given his allegiance to a subjective worldview (namely, one which ascribes metaphysical primacy to a form of consciousness), reject the assumption he saddles “the atheist” with? After all, given the assumption, central to Wilson’s mystical beliefs, that everything we find in the world, including human beings and their mental activity, is the product of supernatural wishing, why not suppose that human thinking and soda fizzing essentially belong to the same category? Indeed, on the theistic assumption, both human thinking and soda fizzing are products of a single creative source, so they both come from precisely the same place, according to Wilson’s own worldview. Already they both fit neatly together into the category “creation,” so what, on Wilson’s view, distinguishes them in any fundamental way?

It’s even worse for Wilson’s view, for Christian theism explicitly holds that everything in the category “creation” is directed and managed by the supernatural being imagined to have created everything. This removes the volitional, self-directed capacity that we know to be essential to conceptual activity from human thinking, and renders human mental activity to be essentially a reaction to some cause beyond it. On the theistic view, then, human thought cannot be a type of causation, but rather merely an effect, just like the fizzing of a soda!

What Wilson does not do in his strategy is identify the essential characteristics of human thought activity which distinguish it from chemical reactions as such. Either this is a missed opportunity for Wilson, or he simply doesn’t know himself. My suspicion is that, given the fact that Christianity has no theory of concepts to begin with, Wilson is lost when it comes to the essential distinctions of human consciousness. This ignorance, inherent in the religious worldview, is further compounded by its assumption of the primacy of consciousness metaphysics, e.g., the view that reality is a product of conscious activity. Chemical reactions like soda fizzing are neither true nor false because they are metaphysical, not epistemological. Truth is an aspect of identification and is thus possibly only in a conceptual context. Since identification is achieved by means of conceptual integration, truth is only possible given the conceptual activity of human consciousness. Soda fizzing out the top of a bottle is not a process of identification; it’s not an instance of a conscious mind forming or applying concepts in relation to some object of awareness. But understanding these points requires familiarity with the nature of concepts. The Christian will not find this in his religious teachings.

Moreover, given that religion essentially reverses the relationship between consciousness and its objects, giving metaphysical primacy to the subject of consciousness over its objects (subjectivism; cf. the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo by a supernatural conscious being), adherents to the religious view of the world have already started off on the wrong footing if there’s to be any understanding of the nature of consciousness, its relation to the world, and the functions it can perform in relation to the world.

Wilson continues:
The atheist must assume that there is a difference in the truth value of various thoughts and ideas in order to debate with a Christian; he must say that we are far more than different, well-shaken bottles of pop. But in order to say this, he must assume the falsity of the worldview he claims to uphold. In short, he must assume that God exists in order to deny Him. And this is the transcendental claim in a nutshell: the existence of God must be assumed in order to debate it. Moreover, it must be assumed by all parties in the debate. Thus, once the debate has begun, it is over.
If the debate in question is whether or not there’s a god, I would say the debate is over before it begins, but for reasons that escape Wilson (since he’s distracted by his own religious delusions). By merely asserting any statement of truth, a thinker implicitly acknowledges the primacy of existence and thereby pulls the rug out from underneath theism. For to assert a statement of truth is to imply that it’s true independently of anyone’s preferences, wishes, ignorance, conclusions otherwise, etc. This puts conscious activity in the role of identifying what is, not in the role of creating or controlling what is. Wishing doesn’t make it so, so a worldview which grants metaphysical primacy to wishing is already diametrically opposed to the very foundations of truth as such. Theism grants metaphysical primacy to wishing (e.g., the Christian god essentially wished the world into being), consequently no matter what caricatures Wilson employs to malign atheism or burdens he lays on atheists’ shoulders, his worldview is, by its own metaphysical allegiances, ruled out from rational consideration at the very outset of debate.

If my worldview explicitly recognizes the fact that wishing doesn’t make it so, that the task of consciousness is not to create reality and conform it to one’s wishes, but to perceive and identify that which exists, how exactly am I assuming the falsity of these presuppositions by affirming that we (i.e., human thinkers) are “far more than different, well-shaken bottles of pop”? Wilson does not explain this. Nor does he explain how one “must assume that God exists in order to deny Him.” If only Wilson would actually present an argument for theism rather than asserting it as though it were beyond debate and blindly maligning any and all alternatives to theism!

In fact, I would argue that asserting that a god exists is an exercise in self-contradiction. This may not be readily obvious to readers, but it shouldn’t be that difficult to grasp once one understands the issue of metaphysical primacy and the fact that there’s a distinction between the act of asserting a statement as true and the content of what’s being asserted as true. The primacy of existence is the recognition that reality exists independent of conscious activity, that what exists is what it is regardless of what anyone wishes, prefers, imagines, believes, stipulates, etc. The implicit recognition of the primacy of existence is operative any time one makes a statement that is supposed to be regarded as true, even if it turns out not to be true. To assert that X is the case is to assume that X is the case regardless of what anyone might wish, prefer, believe, etc.; it is to say that X is the case even if anyone denies that X is the case, wishes otherwise, prefers to believe otherwise, imagines otherwise, etc. Thus, the very act of asserting X to be the case, is to performatively assume the primacy of existence metaphysics, for the act of asserting X to be the case is to performatively assume that wishing, imagination, denials, preferences, likes and dislikes, etc., are all powerless to change the fact that X is the case.

But in spite of this fact about the nature of asserting X to be the case, it is possible that the content of X assumes the opposite to the primacy of existence, namely the primacy of consciousness. Thus if one asserts that there is a magic consciousness which not only created all of reality, but also has the power to turn X into non-X, he is performatively assuming the primacy of existence (in the very act of making the assertion) while the content of his assertion denies the primacy of existence (by attributing to consciousness the power of turning X into non-X). On the one hand, consciousness apprehends and identifies a reality that exists independent of conscious activity, while on the other hand affirming the existence of a consciousness which creates reality and conforms it to its internal content. The resulting contradiction is so fundamental as to go unnoticed by those who have not grasped the proper relationship between consciousness and its objects.

Theism is a species of just this kind of self-contradiction. It asserts something to be the case, thereby performatively assuming the primacy of existence, yet that something which it asserts to be the case denies the primacy of existence by granting metaphysical primacy to consciousness. Hence theism, at its most rudimentary level, hinges on an inescapable self-contradiction.

Since truth by its very nature inherently presupposes the primacy of existence, and since theism by its very nature inherently presupposes the primacy of consciousness, theistic claims can never be true. All this is lost on Wilson, and most likely theists will either ignore this advice or try to overturn it with point-missing excuses, since they have a confessional investment to protect. It should be no surprise, then, that Wilson and other apologists seek rather to put non-believers on the defensive and proceed as though their theism were true by default, for they have no rational defense for their worldview claims.

by Dawson Bethrick

1 comment:

Ydemoc said...


Thank you again, Dawson!