Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Preliminary Worldview Considerations before Anderson’s WSIBC

In my previous entry, I announced my recent purchase of James Anderson’s book Why Should I Believe Christianity? (WSIBC) – which as of this writing has a rank of 133 in the category Presbyterian Christianity, so get your copy while supplies last – and my intention to explore the case he presents in that book for, well, believing Christianity.

Also in my previous entry I provided a list of 25 worldview-oriented questions that I would keep by my side as I read through Anderson’s book, to see if finally I can get some answers on some pressing issues that apologists before him seem reluctant to address.

In the present entry I want to provide a few high-level observations before diving into the first chapter of Anderson’s book, and really all the chapters which follow. I expect that the following points, which are by no means exhaustive, will come in handy when examining any case for theism in particular and any endorsement of mysticism (of which Christianity is a category) in general.

These observations encapsulate some important general truths that I have learned over the years, truths which have relevance to discussions pertaining to any form of mysticism, especially theistic religions. Each of these could be expanded into dedicated entries of their own, and discussions of much of what I list here can be found in previous entries on my blog – just use the search function. If readers are interested in discussing any of them, leave a comment. However, I suspect most of these will seem obviously true to most readers once they’re pointed out.

These observations include the following:
- We learn of “the supernatural” from other human beings, not from supernatural beings themselves.  
- Beliefs do not alter reality.  
- Nothing other than our own volitional self-regulation will keep us from imagining things that are not real.  
- Just because we do not find something in reality does not mean that we lack the capacity to imagine it.  
- The imaginary is not real.  
- Existence does not find its source in wishing, imagination, commands, or any other type of conscious activity.  
- Reality does not conform to beliefs, preferences, or ideology.  
- Imagination is the necessary precondition for religious faith.  
- The “immaterial” is not easy (to put it lightly) to distinguish from the imaginary.  
- When reading a story, one’s imagination becomes active typically without the reader realizing it; when this happens, his consciousness is trained on what he is imagining, not on the fact that he is imagining, just as he is focused on what he is reading rather than on the fact that he is reading.  
- The same thing can happen when reading theistic defenses (and apologists are counting on it!).  
- Without being aware that he is imagining, a person may very easily succumb to confusing what he imagines with what he thinks is real.  
- Generally speaking, belief is acceptance of some ideational content as truthful without performing firsthand the rational steps required to tie the ideational content logically back to what can be known or perceived firsthand; in conversation, one’s use of ‘belief’ commonly implies only a degree of incomplete confidence rather than firm certainty (e.g., “I believe it should be sunny next Thursday”).  
- Even if the believer could prove existence of his god, if it could be proven, it would change nothing that is important to man, his survival, his moral needs, etc. It would be an irrelevant triviality.
Now some apologists might object to my frequent references to imagination when it comes to examining their theistic defenses. And it’s true – I have often cited the imagination as one of the primary engines of mystical belief, and I will continue to do so. But if religionists want me to stop drawing attention to the imagination and its role in religious belief, they’ll first need to stop insisting that what they imagine is real. See, I’m open to making a deal here. But apologists should appreciate that I’m being entirely consistent here given my basic philosophical foundations and the broader purpose to my analysis.

Imagination is a wonderful faculty. Without it, we would be lost, for it allows us to project beyond our inductive conclusions to what might happen given certain conditions. Induction is essentially the application of the law of causality to entity classes (i.e., first-level concepts) and higher abstractions. Imagination allows us to vary the specific measures (attributes, parameters, conditions, etc.) of relevant entity classes in order to hypothesize possible outcomes given the selected variations. If guided by facts, this is very helpful to human life.

For example, at work I might imagine how informative (and therefore helpful) a certain report would be if it pulled in all customer transactional information according to a specific set of criteria. I then go about exploring our CRM system for ways to create this report and pull the desired data. As I proceed, I may find that I need to correct certain details given the erroneous nature of certain assumptions or because I just hadn’t anticipated a particular hurdle. But once I solve for those, I pull a report and not only do I find it useful, my colleagues are thrilled at how useful it is to them. And we all go on to have yet another successful day in business. Imagination guided by facts is a wonderful thing!

But if our imagination is not guided ultimately by facts, we can get lost in our imagination. The doorway to this hazard is the failure to distinguish between what is real and what is merely imaginary in the first place. When I first had the idea of the customer data report, it did not automatically come into existence. Imagination is not a means of conjuring objects into being. I still had to perform the work to get the data I wanted. Philosophically, the doorway to blurring the distinction between what is real and what is imaginary is opened when we fail to identify and integrate the nature of the relationship between consciousness and existence into the foundational superstructure of our knowledge. This relationship lies ever-present at the very foundation of all thinking, since thinking is conscious activity in regard to some object or set of objects, in regard to existence. And I know of only one philosophy which identifies this relationship and takes it seriously, and which does so consistently, and that is Objectivism.

By contrast, consider Christianity on this front. I have scoured the Old and New Testaments for any informed and meaningful discussion of the nature of the relationship between consciousness and existence, between our faculty of awareness and the objects we are aware of, and have found utter silence on the issue. Far from recognizing the fact that consciousness is a faculty of awareness and not a power which can create existence and/or alter reality, the authors of the texts we find in the Christian bible today clearly took their consciousness completely for granted and proceeded to make proclamations about reality (and “beyond”) without grasping the nature of their own consciousness and its function as a means of awareness as opposed to a power to create and alter reality. Given this fundamental oversight, which is abysmally wrong, they were naturally prone, just as children (and many adults!) are today, to blurring the vital distinctions between reality and imagination, facts and fantasies, truth and mystical speculation, all as a result of failing to grasp the proper relationship between consciousness and its objects.

Throughout his book Why Should I Believe Christianity? Anderson uses the presuppositional approach. Broadly speaking, this approach involves hijacking some assumption people commonly take for granted in order to construe it as evidence on behalf of Christian theism. Whether it’s the existence of the universe, the foundations of reason, the nature of morality and value judgments, the scientific enterprise, mathematics, etc., Christian apologists, like scavengers on roadkill, descend on what are essentially the failings of really bad philosophy in order to shoehorn their mysticism into the relevant issue as if it were the solution secular philosophers missed all along. (It’s almost comedic how these same apologists miss the fact that those some secular philosophers were acting under the influence of some form of mysticism all along!)

Consider the following example. Modern-day apologists, unmindful of the axioms, ignorant of mind-body integration, and oblivious to the primacy of existence (e.g., the fact that wishing doesn’t make it so), often invoke what has become known as “the hard problem of consciousness” in their efforts to discredit non-theistic viewpoints. They do this, not because their worldview supplies us with useful knowledge to unlock the mysteries of this supposed problem, but because it allows them to perpetuate the pretense of respectability for their mystical affirmations. It’s just another opportunity for their god-of-the-gaps injection of theism into philosophical dialogue. But if consciousness is such a “hard problem” for thinkers today, who at least have identified the faculty of consciousness and have begun the probably centuries-long process of exploring its overall nature, how much useful knowledge can we expect from ancient writers who hadn’t even formed the concept ‘consciousness’ to begin with? Blank out.

One thing is for sure here: if there is in fact a “hard problem of consciousness,” we will not make progress in advancing our understanding of consciousness by misusing our conscious faculties. For example, we will not increase our knowledge of the nature of consciousness by imagining an omnipotent mind “beyond the universe” and pretending that it is real, that it has relevance, that it is important. Fantasies are not a substitute for facts, nor are they a form of knowledge of what is real.

In my points of observation listed above I note that one naturally involves his imagination when reading a story and that a reader typically is not aware of the fact that he is imagining since his focus is preoccupied with what he is reading and the imagery described in the story stimulates in his imagination. There’s nothing wrong with imagining what a story you’re reading describes, and in fact it is one of the values which attracts many people to reading stories. (The advent of the modern novel would have never gotten off the ground without this inclination among the readership!) What’s philosophically important is awareness of the facts that you’re imagining and that what you’re imagining is not real. When reading fiction, your mind needs to come back to reality when you set the book aside.

Here's an illustration: I read a story in the local news about a driver who crashed his car into a tree on a country road. As I read the story, I start imagining all the specifics described in it. I may not even be aware that I’m imagining – I’m focused on digesting the content of the story. I’m not aware of my heart rate, my eyes blinking, even my breathing. If I’m predisposed to thinking it is a true account, I accept the overall content of the story as true – i.e., I believe the accident happened, even though I cannot tie the account of the accident directly back to what I have personally witnessed. I have seen drivers, cars, and trees, and even accidents, but I have not seen the accident scene described in this story. But I still find myself imagining the scene. As I read through the story about the accident, I imagine a blue four-door Toyota driven by a tall man with long dark hair and turned on its side beside a large oak tree, when in reality it was a red two-door Mazda (the car, not Ahura Mazda) driven by a short bald man and resting right side up beside a tall spruce. (Shame on me for not knowing the local flora!)

Clearly what I imagined to be the case, is not really what is the case. And this is harmless since (a) imagining the scene helped me grasp the possible danger of the accident (which helps to remind me to be a safe driver!), and (b) I’m not going around insisting that others believe that the accident involved a blue Toyota, a tall man with long dark hair and an oak tree when in fact it involved a red Mazda, a short bald man and a spruce. Imagination provides utility to life, but should not be confused with reality.

Contrast this view of the imagination with that provided by a Christian apologist:
When something “exists” it is. Note that this does not mean that we are dealing with physical or material existence. Indeed, immaterial existence also exists. (For evidence of this, imagine a red ball. The red ball you have imagined does not have any physical existence; it exists immaterially. Granted, one can argue that the immaterial existence is based on a material brain, but the ball that is imagined is not material. It does not exist physically anywhere.)
These words were written by presuppositionalist Peter Pike in a paper which he removed from his now defunct site many years ago. I discuss it on my blog here.

And Pike’s words do raise some very interesting questions. Christian apologists will frequently, repetitively even, invoke the terms “immaterial” and “non-physical,” and use these to describe their god and other supernatural things they believe in. But then how does Christianity categorize something that’s imaginary? Clearly an imaginary thing is not physical or material. When I imagine a ball I cannot hold it my hand, bounce it off a wall or throw it to my daughter. But the only alternative category Christians seem to allow is non-physical or immaterial. Thus, imaginary things, as Pike’s own “reasoning” here suggests, must be immaterial in nature. But if something we know we’ve imagined is immaterial and the Christian god is said to be immaterial, how can one then turn around and say that the immaterial god Christians imagine is not also imaginary? It seems to be a most dubious pickle the believer finds himself in, and completely of his own making!

These and other problems that I have pointed out on my blog lead me to think that a Christian’s testimony actually would make much more sense and would be much more authentic if, instead of “believing,” the Christian just openly acknowledges that he’s really just imagining. For when the believer says “I believe God resurrected Jesus on the third day,” he’s really telling us that he has imagined this to be the case, as he likely did when he read about it in the gospel story, for he has no objective inputs to substantiate a belief that this has actually happened in reality. It seems so real to him because the image of Jesus rising from death resides in his imagination, a most intimate location in his mind, right there with his emotions, desires, hopes, dreams, fears and affections.

Consider another example I’ve collected in my writings. This comes from my 2006 blog entry titled Carr vs. Cole which is a commentary of mine regarding a discussion between Steven Carr (of Steven Carr’s Blog) and Canon Michael Cole, a Christian who described an experience he had which he interprets as “the risen Christ” standing right next to him. He stated:
Now the evidence that he is God does not depend entirely on the resurrection. Many other things as well. I think I also want to bring in personal experience. I said earlier on that I’ve been a Christian from the age of twelve. And I’m just aware of God being there in the person of Christ in all sorts of different situations, speaking to me by his spirit through the word of God. There was one particular experience when I was very, very conscious of the risen Christ, actually standing with me in the church I was serving, asking whether we would make him Lord of that church... I wouldn’t say anything about that for 24 hours, it was too personal, too close.
That he would not “say anything about that for 24 hours” can only suggest that this was not an encounter of the physical kind, otherwise he’d likely be marveling over the experience with others who saw the same thing, assuming anyone else was present. This and his statement that “it was too personal, too close,” all suggest that this was something experienced in his own mind, a waking fantasy of sorts, an indulgence of the imagination if there ever were one. Indeed, how could anyone – including the gentleman himself – rule out the role of his imagination in what he claims to have experienced?

He also tells us in the same statement that he had “been a Christian from the age of twelve.” How philosophically informed are twelve-year-olds? Specifically, how aware are they of the nature of objectivity, the relationship between consciousness and its objects, the fundamental distinction between what is real and what is imaginary, the need to guide one’s mental activity according to rational principles, etc.? I submit that one will not learn of these things in Sunday school, and public schooling is just as bad.

by Dawson Bethrick


James P. Caputo said...


Today I'm indescribably thankful to you for the immense contritbtuon you've made to my intellectual formation and emancipation. Aside from Ayn Rand (who I consider a philosophic genius), your work has had the largest impact on my thinking and understanding on how my mind works. You are, without a doubt, the most able and linguistically gifted proponent of the superiority of rational philosophy over mysticism I've yet to encounter. Keep writing!

James Caputo

Bahnsen Burner said...

Thank you for the kind words, James! I'm glad you're enjoying my writings. I just got back from a week of business travel, and it was more successful than I expected, I'm happy to say. (Though I dislike traveling on business...) I've made lots more notes as I've been going through Anderson's book and intend to get some more content posted soon. It's a veritable treasure trove of opportunities for me to craft more delicious posts!

So please stay tuned!