Thursday, August 27, 2020

My Refutation of STB: Ten Years On

Here at Incinerating Presuppositionalism, I like to recognize special anniversaries, milestones and achievements which mark the highlights of my blog. That’s not easy because, in my humble opinion, there are a lot of candidates for this kind of celebration. As frequent visitors likely already know, every year on the anniversary of this blog (first post dated March 26, 2005), I post an anniversary entry listing out all the posts I have published since the previous anniversary. Back in March of this year I posted the fifteenth such anniversary entry. 

Today I would like to mark the anniversary of an entry which rivals only a handful of others for most view counts on my blog – yes, the interest here persists after all these years! – namely an entry which I posted on this date in 2010. That is my Critique of Sye Ten Bruggencate’s Feels more like eight and a half years ago, but in fact it’s been a full decade now. 

A lot has happened on Incinerating Presuppositionalism since I posted my refutation of Sye Ten Bruggencate’s website (the entry registered in at #238 in the Year Six anniversary post of March 26, 2011, while today’s is the 482nd post in this one-man show). But I recently read through my refutation of Sye’s poof, and I still stand by what I wrote there ten years ago. 

Sye’s website is still accessible on the web (I don’t remember ever visiting it since I posted my write-up in 2010), and still has the overall shape. Its main event is a series of mostly binary questions which, when answered by clicking the given responses, leads one down a path deliberately geared toward endorsing theism. It’s as deliberately manipulative as a carnival funhouse. There do appear to be some minor edits (for example, back in 2010, Sye included science along with truth, logic, etc., but science has been taken out of the mix for some reason; also, back in 2010, the choice was whether logic is “material” or “immaterial,” but now it’s between “logic is made of matter” and “logic is not made of matter” – which is close to what I suggested ten years ago), but generally it seems very much the same. 

Sye assures us (here) that his argument is valid, and thus constitutes a legitimate proof. However, I do not find it very easy to reconstruct what he presents on his website in the form of a syllogism that demonstrates the formal validity he claims for it. Specifically, it’s not clear how exactly the conclusion that the Christian god exists is supposed to follow from the premises through which the visitor steps through in the sequence of pages Sye has assembled on his site. It seems to go as follows (following the direct path to theism which he lays out in his click series):
Premise 1. Absolute truth exists (here
Premise 2: I know something to be true (here
Premise 3: Logic exists (here
Premise 4: Logic is universal (here
Premise 5: Logic does not change (here
Premise 6: Logic is not made of matter (here
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.
This seems to be the argument we’re given, for after Premise 6, we are brought directly to this page, which has the following emphatic assertion at the top of the page in large lettering:
The proof that God exists is that without Him you couldn’t prove anything!
which does not at all follow logically from any of the premises given thus far. 

Clearly the intention behind the website is to present a “proof that God exists” (it’s in the site’s url!), but the fact that the conclusion “God exists” does not follow from the premises is clear from the fact that the conclusion introduces a term (“God”) which is not present in any of the premises supporting it. In fact, the assertion that a god needs to be real in order to prove anything is quite empty unless and until one first establishes that said god exists in the first place, for this statement clearly assumes that it exists, and yet Sye has nowhere established the existence of his god by this point that I can see. He may believe all of this, he may want it to be true, but proving that it’s true is a different matter. So just where is this valid argument that leads from premises to the conclusion that “God exists” to be found? I’m not seeing it. 

It’s as though we have a situation like the following:
Premise 1: Dirt is real. 
Premise 2: Atoms are real. 
Premise 3: Plankton are real. 
Premise 4: Atom bombs explode. 
Premise 5: Some postal workers have gone postal. 
Premise 6: Last night your dream was a dream. 
Conclusion: Therefore, the Bogeyman exists! 
The proof? The proof that the Bogeyman exists is that without Him you couldn’t prove anything!
While we might readily affirm the premises, I don’t think the conclusion here follows any more or less than Sye’s conclusion follows from the loose assortment of statements he’s assembled on his website. 

Now, Sye does go on to state (here):
Truth, knowledge, and logic are all necessary to prove anything, and you assumed and admitted to all of them by reaching this proof. 
While you may try to account for truth, knowledge and logic without God, the rest of the site will expose your inability to do so and the Christian’s justification for them with God.
Of course, we can agree (Sye would say “admit”) that truth, knowledge and logic are necessary to prove anything. But here we start to see that this so-called “transcendental argument” of Sye’s is really just a disguised god-of-the-gaps argument – to the extent that there’s any argument here in the first place. The essential gist of presuppositionalism is that while truth, knowledge and logic are necessary preconditions for proof, truth, knowledge and logic themselves are not self-sufficient fundamentals, but in fact point to something yet more fundamental than themselves, and the presuppositionalists claim that this more fundamental thing is the Christian god. Unfortunately, apologists have a real dickens of a time making any progress towards defending and validating such a claim. 

Here we see that Sye’s whole case hinges on the alleged “inability” of the visitor “to account for truth, knowledge and logic” and to do so in a manner “without God” – that is, without the thing whose existence Sye apparently thinks he’s proven. A vicious circularity of rationale starts to expose itself here: the Christian god exists because you can’t account for knowledge without the Christian god, because “without Him you couldn’t prove anything!” Essentially, we are supposed to accept his would-be argument’s conclusion as a logical consequence of some item of ignorance or denial, as a consequence of what we are supposed to accept necessarily as an “inability” to do something, all because Sye says so. (And along with this, any attempt to present a theory of knowledge which “accounts for” truth, knowledge and logic without referencing Sye’s god, will simply be rejected out of hand by the presuppositionalist, and this rejection he takes as confirmation of his “proof.”) But again, how does any of this constitute a valid inference? 

But this last question – how do we infer the existence of Sye’s god? – itself exposes some significant confusion here. On the one hand, presuppositionalists want to treat their god as the ultimate starting point of truth, knowledge and logic, as something of which we are directly aware and which “accounts for” all the supposed mysteries of human cognition; on the other, they claim to have a proof by which its existence can be inferred from things everyone handles daily like truth, knowledge and logic. This can only imply a rather confused understanding of the hierarchical nature of knowledge. For one, if one’s starting point is an authentic starting point – i.e., perceptually self-evident, conceptually irreducible, universally implicit in all knowledge, thinking, judgment, etc., it is not found in the conclusion of a proof. For example, one does not need to prove the existence of something he directly perceives. Second, by contrast, if a position or belief needs a proof to authenticate it, it clearly cannot be one’s starting point. So what is Sye’s starting point? 

Naturally we can expect Sye to assert that his god is his starting point, and everyone else’s as well, and yet he still thinks a proof is somehow appropriate. At this point, we must ask two questions:
1. What exactly does the word “God” denote? and 
2. By what means does anyone have awareness of what the word “God” denotes?
To answer the first question, Sye gives us some hints on his Questions/Answers page:
God is a personal being (not an impersonal force). God is immaterial, omnipresent (everywhere), omniscient (all knowing), omnipotent (all powerful), omnibenevolent (all good), immutable (unchanging), sovereign (supreme in authority), free, perfect, and eternal (without beginning or end).
Now, taken together, none of the descriptions given here describe something that is perceptually self-evident that I am aware of. For example, no personal being I’ve ever encountered possesses perceptually self-evident omniscience or sovereignty. Moreover, if this is the Christian god, it’s supposed to also be invisible (cf. Col. 1:15, 1 Tim. 1:17, et al.), and Sye says his “God is immaterial.” Something that is both “invisible” and “immaterial” cannot be perceptually self-evident. Also, what is described here could not be conceptually irreducible, since it’s supposed to be a “personal being.” Only axiomatic concepts are conceptually irreducible. The qualities of conceptual reducibility and irreducibility only apply in relation to knowledge, not to specific concretes. To claim otherwise would place “God” in the same category as other products of cognition, and yet “God” is supposed to be an independently existing being, not a product of man’s mind. 

Moreover, what is given in the quoted excerpt above does not describe something that is universally implicit in all knowledge, thinking, judgment, etc. Apologists can be expected to retort that their god is universally implicit in all knowledge by claiming that it is so because it created everything, including human beings and their minds. But this itself is not self-evident either, and even worse, it begs the question by assuming what the apologist is called to prove to begin with. Such claims do not satisfy the apologist’s burdens – rather, they only serve to multiply their burdens. 

So “God” fails to qualify as a starting point on all three criteria here; moreover, to insist that “God” does qualify as one’s starting point, one must assume the truth of the axioms while denying their role as the actual anchors of one’s knowledge. Such a move only steepens the suspicion that what we’re dealing with here is a delusion, not facts. 

Turning to my second question, we find that matters get even worse for the theist. By what means does the believer acquire awareness of his god? If his god were truly his starting point, he would have to have direct awareness of it somehow. But as we saw above, the means by which he allegedly has awareness of what he calls “God” could not be perceptual in nature. Being “immaterial,” it would not reflect light (and we’ve already seen that it’s supposed to be “invisible”), nor would it be something one can touch or feel with his hands, for example. We may not be able to see air, for example, but do perceive air directly when we feel it blowing against our cheeks and racing in and out of our lungs. But a being that is “immaterial” would not be accessible to any of our sense modalities, which is the primary means by which we have awareness of things which exist independently of us. So if it is not accessible by the primary means by which we have awareness of things which exist independently of us, then “God” does not denote some independently existing thing that we can directly perceive, so therefore it cannot serve as the legitimate starting point of knowledge, and we still have yet to identify the means by which the believer has direct awareness of what he calls “God”. It is on the believer to identify these means. 

Since it is not by means of perception, the theist clearly does not have awareness of it by looking outward; that leaves one other option: he is aware of it by looking inward

Thus we have efforts to “prove” that this “God” exists, and many different proofs have been assembled by very clever thinkers who desperately desire to validate their god-belief commitments, Sye’s being an example of one. (In fact, I would more likely classify Sye’s effort as a poof rather than an actual proof, for as we saw above the intended conclusion does not even follow from the premises given, and yet in spite of this we’re still expected to accept it as a genuine proof.) 

The choice to assemble a “proof” of any god performatively concedes that the alleged existence of said god is not perceptually self-evident, for one does not need to prove the existence of something which he perceives directly. Generally speaking, proof is an objective process of logically tying that which is not perceptually self-evident to that which is perceptually self-evident. Thus the very existence of theistic proofs constitutes an admission on the part of their advocates that the god they worship is not their starting point, but rather something whose existence must be inferred from more fundamental premises. Disclaimers about the supposed special nature of “transcendental arguments” do not change this, since an argument, regardless of how one qualifies it, seeks to establish a conclusion by securing it as a consequence of premises which are supposed to support and inform it. 

The claim that “God” is one’s starting point is therefore a pretense and only suggests that the apologist is being disingenuous: he is either speaking in ignorance about the nature of knowledge (and therefore has no business claiming his assertions are true), or he is deliberately trying to deceive (and thus his claims that his assertions are true are outright lies). In Sye’s case, I suspect it’s a strong mixture of both. 

Now there is a solution to understanding the believer’s confusions here, though believers will likely not find it very attractive. On the one hand they posture themselves as having direct awareness of their god, and on the other they claim that it is immaterial, omniscient, omnipresent, and the such, and therefore seemingly fundamental to truth, knowledge and logic. We saw above that their god is clearly not something they can have direct awareness of by looking outward. Moreover, the attributes believers ascribe to their god – immaterial, omnipresent, immutable, etc. – are not attributes of specific concretes we find when we look outward at the world. However, these attributes do seem to be characteristic of things we discover about our own psychological experience when we look inward into the functionings of our own minds. 

The concept ‘truth’, for example, does not denote specific concretes we find existing independently, like rocks, shoes and skyscrapers. And yet, truth is a very important concept. But that’s an important factor which distinguishes truth from concretes we find when we look outward at the world: truth is conceptual in nature. More precisely, truth is an attribute of identification. If I make the statement “the tree in my backyard is taller than my house,” I am identifying some feature of reality that I observe when I look outward, and if my efforts to identify what I observe when I look outward are accurate and in line with what I observe, we have a concept for this non-contradictory relationship, namely the concept truth. Truth, therefore, is an attribute of identification, and identification is a conceptual function our minds perform all day long. Thus “truth” is not just important, it seems to be this ever-present phenomenon underlying so much of our experience, and yet if one does not grasp the nature of what his mind is doing when he identifies things he observes and the potential for his identifications to contradict the identity of what he observes, he may very well find truth as such to be this mysterious force which has a personality of its own. Thus ignorance of the conceptual nature of truth can easily lead to mystical speculation. 

Similarly with knowledge and logic. We don’t “see” knowledge when we look outward, but we do acquire and validate knowledge about what we discover and observe when we look outward. There is clearly a relationship between what we perceive and what we know, and philosophers over the centuries have lead each other in very confused directions trying to tease out this relationship. What they all had in common was ignorance of how the mind forms concepts on the basis of perceptual input. Thus their pronouncements about the nature of knowledge do not benefit from an understanding of the nature of concepts as such. That confusion persists today and has taken up residence in many places, including Christian apologetics. How do we acquire knowledge? We acquire knowledge by forming concepts on the basis of what we perceive and observe. Like truth, knowledge is conceptual in nature. So is logic, which is the means by which we discover and identify the relations between the items of knowledge we acquire. 

But what is it that believers claim to have direct awareness of when they claim, for example, that the Christian god speaks to them, reveals knowledge to them, guides and comforts them, etc.? Believers will tell us that whatever it is, it is personal and clearly feels very real to them, more intimate than the tightest Spandex, and that it is with them, even within them, wherever they go and whatever they are doing. The answer should be obvious: they’re imagining, and the god they claim is real is imaginary. A thinker is directly aware of what he is imagining, even though he may not realize that he is in fact just imagining. Regardless, recognizing the role of imagination in god-belief is of central importance to understanding the enormity of the internal experience believers report about their relationship with the god they claim is real. 

This is why apologists are so readily drawn to theistic defenses which focus on psycho-cognitive operations as having some likeness to their deity. Truth, knowledge and logic are “immaterial,” for example. But to the extent that “immaterial” has any meaning (by contrast to “material”), the imaginary is also immaterial

Consider an example: If I imagine a ball, is what I’m imagining material or immaterial? Clearly it’s not material; if what I imagined were material, I might imagine all kinds of luxuries to populate my dream house and all kinds of other neat things, like peaceful leaders around the world, better parents in my neighborhood, cures for cancer, and the like. But when I imagine something, it does not pop into existence. Existence exists independent of conscious activity – that’s the primacy of existence, my fundamentally guiding philosophical principle. So what I imagine is certainly not material, and the only other option that apologists like Sye Ten Bruggencate allow, is that the imaginary is immaterial

If the Christian god is in fact imaginary, this explains why apologists point to functions of the psycho-cognitive realm as ready analogues to their god in their apologetic treatments, why what they call “God” seems so fundamental and immediately present to one’s awareness, and why they struggle so hard when it comes to explaining how they “know” that their god is real. It also explains why religious worldviews put such great emphasis on faith and the power of belief. In the religionist’s mind, the urge to “believe” is really just a call to imagine, only he resists admitting this to himself. Rather, it is this crucial, underlying fact – that the god the believer worships has been imaginary all along – that he suppresses and tries to outrun. Even little children learn to imagine at a very young age; I suspect this is part of what is meant when Matthew 18:3 has Jesus give as a criterion of salvation that his hearers “become as little children” – i.e., “like little children, make liberal use of your imagination.” Why use syllogisms to prove conclusions when you can just imagine your way to theism? Of course, the apologist is never fully convinced himself; imagination is not a means of establishing knowledge. So he keeps trying to strengthen and fine-tune his apologetic arguments, hoping that one more time at the wheel will be enough to finally sharpen that blade. But ten years later, it’s still as dull as a red herring. 

Now suppose an individual has not explored the functions of his own mind and thus has yet to discover how he knows what he knows. When called to “account for” truth, knowledge and logic, he may honestly respond, “I don’t know.” But would it follow from this lack of knowledge on these matters that the Christian worldview is therefore true and that the Christian god is therefore real? Obviously not. But time and time again this carnival of non sequiturs proves to be the essence of Sye’s debating strategy, which he has deployed over and over and over again in his televised debates. Even worse, by appealing to “revelation” as his means of knowing, he is essentially confessing that he himself does not know what he claims to know (he’s essentially admitting that he doesn’t know what his actions his own mind performs; the “knowledge” in question is simply deposited into it from an external source, like a robot fixed on a diet of nightly news), and certainly cannot articulate the steps by which he came to the conclusion that his god is real. As we saw above, the steps he lays out on his website do not lead to the conclusion that his god is real, but in fact reveal a deeper confusion on Sye’s part. 

When pressed to explain how he knows that his god exists, Sye will often retort: “The same way you do.” But even though Sye thinks this cleverly supports his strategy, it actually puts the matter into the atheist’s hands. I know that what I’m doing when I contemplate the Christian god as Christians describe it, is imagining. So here Sye would in effect simply be conceding that he’s doing the very same thing himself. 

But an explanation of truth, knowledge and logic is well within one’s grasp if he understands the nature of concepts and can present an analysis of truth, knowledge and logic in terms of their conceptual underpinnings. Moreover, since truth, knowledge and logic are conceptual in nature, and concepts have their ultimate basis in perceptual input (they have to be if they’re going to have any objectivity), truth, knowledge and logic have their ultimate basis in perceptual input, not in something that is merely imaginary. The philosophical advantage here is that the conceptual analysis of truth, knowledge and logic has its basis in reality, as opposed to the apologist’s preference for fantasy. 

In my original write-up on Sye’s proof, I explained how all these features of cognition – knowledge, truth, logic, etc. – require a good understanding of concepts in order to “account for” them. Concepts are the form in which we identify the objects of our awareness, and given manner in which we form them (through a process of abstraction, specifically the operation of measurement-omission), they are open-ended and allow for further integration long after we first form them. Elsewhere I have shown that truth is “the non-contradictory, objective identification of fact,” and I have also demonstrated that logic cannot in fact “presuppose” the existence of the Christian god. Since we identify facts in conceptual form, truth is therefore a property of concepts properly formed. This explains why truth and, by extension, logic are universal, unchanging, not made of matter, etc., all the premises Sye wants to enlist in order to “prove” that his god exists. And yet one would search Sye’s entire website in vain for any reference to a theory of concepts which explains these things. It’s as though not only that Sye simply does not understand concepts to begin with, but also ends up using his ignorance of concepts as license to stipulate that these things are explained by appealing to the supernatural. 

Then again, if one wanted to become more informed on the conceptual underpinnings of truth, knowledge, logic and the like, wouldn’t the Christian bible be a likely source for such information? It speaks on everything that is important to man, right? One would think that, were the Christian bible truly the product of an omniscient, infallible and caring author determined to see to man’s legitimate needs, we’d find at least some discussion of concepts and how the human mind forms and organizes them. Unfortunately, while there’s plenty of ink spilled throughout the bible on gripping matters such as circumcision, dietary customs, concubinage, norms of slave management, betrayal, vengeance, shaming techniques and other matters appealing to the worst in people, I find no discussion of the nature of concepts and how the human mind forms them anywhere in its many pages. So the bible is of no use here. 

Moreover, I’ve been told that “concepts have no place in Christian epistemology” to begin with (see here) and even that “God's knowledge--what He Himself knows--is not conceptual” (see here). Thus I am in good company when I have observed on many occasions before, that Christianity has no theory of concepts at all. Which means: Christianity is completely in the dark when it comes to illuminating the nature of knowledge and how man discovers and validates it. By extension this vacuity applies to truth and logic as well. Thus it’s enormously ironic when apologists seek to use people’s ignorance of the nature of knowledge in apologetic strategies against them. Presuppositionalism is just another iteration of the blind leading the blind. 

But for apologists this is only the beginning of their problems, for if they were truly interested in the nature of truth, knowledge and logic, they need look no further than to a good theory of concepts (see Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology for starters) to begin their education. However, they are not in fact truly interested in learning about knowledge, or truth, or logic (the doubling down on non sequiturs in defense of the imaginary in place of truth, as we saw above, wholly confirms this). On the contrary, they are fixated on bamboozling people with their chicanery. This is the dishonest aspect of presuppositionalism: the answers to their would-be concerns are out there, but they won’t have any of that – on the contrary, they want instead to brow-beat you into spiritual submission, and the objective nature of truth is not a tool they can use for this. Understanding the objective basis of truth, knowledge and logic is liberating for the human mind, and they want to see the human mind in shackles. So the nature of truth, knowledge and logic must remain ever-mysterious for their purposes. 

In the comments section of my original write-up on Sye’s poof, Sye Ten Bruggencate did post several comments (I counted at least nine; the entry has 202 comments at the time of this writing), so he has no excuse to continue to claim ignorance about the role of concepts in addressing the issues which inform his apologetic and the liability of his apologetic given the role which imagination does in fact play in god-belief. And I have interacted with him elsewhere on these matters (see here, here, and here). 

But the role of imagination in Sye’s god-belief claims cannot be overestimated. For his entire apologetic program is designed to move thinkers from actual concerns pertaining to the reality in which they actually live (like truth, knowledge and logic), to a realm which is merely imaginary. So it should be clear precisely why his desired conclusion does not in fact follow at all from the premises he lays out in his poof. 

I would think that the next time atheist personalities choose to engage Sye on these issues in some public video setting (which is not something I’d encourage, but some individuals do so anyway), they might interrogate him on the distinction between reality and imagination. Here are some suggested prompts:
1. Do you admit that there is a distinction between what is real and what is imaginary? (Yes/No) 
2. Do you admit that the imaginary is not real? (Yes/No) 
3. How do you distinguish between what is real and what is imaginary? (invitation to identify steps in a process) 
4. Can you point to any passage in the bible which details the steps by which one can reliably distinguish between what is real and what he is imagining? (Yes/No – if yes, book, chapter and verse, like the T-shirt Sye has up for sale) 
5. How many steps does that passage prescribe, and what are they, beginning with the first step? (be specific) 
6. How can I reliably distinguish between what you call “God” and what you may merely be imagining? 
7. When I imagine your god, how is what I’m imagining anything other than imaginary?
As the late Steve Hays admitted, “An imagined Jesus is just an imaginary Jesus.” And likewise, an imagined god is just an imaginary god. If Sye’s god is real and not merely a figment of his imagination, I’d think (a) he’d be able to address in a convincing manner the concerns I raise in my list of questions above, and (b) he’d want to address them to ensure his audiences that he’s not out championing something that is merely imaginary. And, moreover, I’d think, if he were able and willing, to address the points of refutation I raised in my original write-up 10 years ago, he’d have done it by now. But I have seen no evidence that he has any answers to my criticisms. In fact, he has on his site a whole page devoted to answering negative feedback, but I see nothing even referencing my critique, let alone addressing any of my points. 

It is very possible for thinkers, especially if they are not careful, to imagine without realizing it. There is no flashing light in our minds notifying us when we begin to imagine. Even when we reach aduthood, imagining is an effortless activity which requires no specialized skill set. It is a mental function available to everyone. This universal availability of the imagination is what makes religious notions readily available to human minds. Not everyone thinks rationally, but everyone can imagine wildly. Knowing when one is imagining is key to protecting oneself from the ravages of mysticism, and religions exploit an individual’s lack of awareness of the fact that he has engaged his imagination. 

by Dawson Bethrick


Unknown said...

Thinking of you and your continual advocacy of Objectivism. My email is still

Ydemoc said...

Hey Dawson,

It was instructive revisiting your interactions with Sye. Can't believe ten years have passed. My next assignment is to go back and read through all the comments from your initial critique.

Thanks once again!


Jason mc said...

Thanks for the recap. It was fun to go back to the old exchanges.

“The proof that God exists is that without Him you couldn’t prove anything!”

The function of this statement is to provoke the nonbeliever into the obvious retort: “of course I can prove things!”. Then the apologist invites the nonbeliever's attempt to substantiate this claim. When the bait is taken, this is where the switcheroo happens. Now the nonbeliever is the one advancing claims and supporting them with arguments, and he is in the defensive position, while the apologist gets to be on the offense, scrutinising the unbeliever's points. Here we see the repeated “how do you know that?” questions. Few are philosophically equipped to justify points drawn out of them via such means.

And on the other hand, the apologist is playing his own cards close to his chest. Ask him how he knows what he claims to know and enjoy gnomic responses like “the same way you do” or “by God having revealed it in such a way I can be certain”.

Why is live debate a preferred format for these interlocutions? There's clearly no hope for a fruitful examination of epistemology with this approach. So why not take it to a stage, and turn it into a circus act?



Geez 10 years man