Thursday, April 28, 2022

Some Thoughts in Response to Anderson’s Argument on Propositions

Last month, the Ivy League International Apologetics Database, aka ILIAD Forum, published an article by Christian apologist James Anderson titled In What Ways is God the Foundation for all Knowledge? The ILIAD Forum is new to me, and it may be new to readers here at Incinerating Presuppositionalism as well. In its obligatory About page, it states that it “was founded in 2021 by undergraduate students from all across the Ivy League, who wanted to provide an online, accessible, and rigorous database of answers to common questions about the nature and commitments of orthodox Christianity.” The site hosts articles by some of the more familiar names (e.g., Vern Poythress, K. Scott Oliphint, William Edgar) and some not so familiar (to me at any rate). Without having explored much of it, already it appears to be a promising quarry for future reading.

In Anderson’s article (cross-posted on his own blog here), he includes a paragraph which demonstrates how apologists can pack so much distortion into so little space. Brian May must be green with envy!

In this entry I will first quote that paragraph in its entirety, then I will follow that with my own interaction, and readers can post their own reactions in the comments section.

Anderson writes:
Consider first that knowledge depends on truth. One can only know the truth if there is a truth to know! But what is a truth? A truth is simply a true proposition, where a proposition is an entity that represents how things are in the world. Propositions can be expressed in language (e.g., written on a page or spoken as audible words) but the propositions themselves are independent of human language, because one and the same proposition can be expressed in multiple languages (e.g., “The sky is blue” and “El cielo es azul” express one and the same proposition). Propositions are real, but they are not physical things. In fact, it turns out that propositions have the same kind of features as thoughts. But propositions cannot be merely human thoughts because there are truths (i.e., true propositions) that are independent of human beings (e.g., logical truths, mathematical truths, and truths about the physical laws of the cosmos). Indeed, had humans never existed, there would still be innumerable truths about the world—including the truth that humans don’t exist! But if propositions are not human thoughts, whose thoughts could they be? One answer immediately suggests itself: God’s thoughts. Since God is a transcendent, immaterial, infinite, eternal, necessarily existent being, the mind of God is perfectly suited to serve as the metaphysical ground of all truths. For this reason, a number of Christian philosophers have followed the lead of St. Augustine (354–430) in arguing that truths are ultimately just divine thoughts. On this view, it is not merely the case that whatever God believes is true; rather, truth just is whatever God believes. Thus, human knowledge entails “thinking God’s thoughts after him” in the deepest sense.
The first thing that jumped out at me here was the clumsy way in which Anderson addresses his own question, “what is a truth?” This is of course a very important question, but his answer his answer (“A truth is simply a true proposition”) is less than satisfying since it makes use of a version of the concept he’s called himself to define. “A truth is… [something that is] true” simply shifts the question back a step rather than answering it. The reader who was hoping to get an answer is now left wondering, “How do we define true?” This is what is known as a circular definition. One source describes this faux pas as follows:
A circular definition is an explanation of a term that relies on references to the term itself or a close synonym. Circular definitions can also take more complex forms whereby a series of definitions refer to each other in a circle without providing actual information.
And while this source notes that use of circular definitions “is surprisingly common,” it nevertheless categorizes circular definitions as a category of “communication failure.” So, predictably, the reader is now going to wonder, “what does it mean to say that something is true?” Coming from a representative a worldview which claims to have cornered the market on “The Truth,” Anderson’s treatment here raises the concern that perhaps this is the best that Christianity can come up with. Indeed, I notice that Anderson does not quote scripture to supply the definition of ‘truth’, and on that note, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about the nature of propositions in any of the books of the Christian bible. I suspect the goal here is to shift the discussion onto the topic of propositions because that at least is more cerebral than stories of a tribal chieftain receiving divine deliverances from a burning bush.

At any rate, if you need to use the word you’re trying to define in its own definition, you haven’t fulfilled the final step in concept-formation, which is definition.

Rand points out:
With certain significant exceptions, every concept can be defined and communicated in terms of other concepts. The exceptions are concepts referring to sensations, and metaphysical axioms. (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 40)
The concept ‘truth’ is not an axiomatic concept, nor does it refer to a sensation. More to the point, the concept ‘truth’ does not denote something that is perceptually self-evident, like trees, mountains, pebbles, clouds, squirrels, human beings, etc. ‘Truth’ is a higher abstraction, and recognition of the need to define the concept ‘truth’ performatively concedes the fact that conceptual cognition has a hierarchical structure.

In my own Glossary of Terms I offer the following definition of ‘truth’:
The non-contradictory, objective identification of fact.
There I point readers to two sources, the Ayn Rand Lexicon entry on ‘truth’, and my own blog entry Answering Dustin Segers' Presuppositionalism, Part I: Intro and the Nature of Truth, for further discussion. The beauty of this definition is that it seats the concept ‘truth’ in its rightful place in the subject-object relationship: facts (i.e., entities existing independently of consciousness in actual relationships) serve as the standard for and inform the act of identification (a type of conscious activity), thus correlating truth with conscious activity while aligning that activity explicitly with the principle of the primacy of existence (hence objective). As an aspect of identification, truth is thus conceptual, not metaphysical. What true identification denotes – namely facts – is what is metaphysical. It is this distinction between the metaphysical and the conceptual which is blurred in treatments like Anderson’s, as we will see below.

Anderson defines ‘proposition’ as “an entity that represents how things are in the world,” which implies the correspondence theory of truth. But to call propositions entities invites a variety of interpretations given the lack of precision here. At the very least, to say that propositions are entities implies that propositions are irreducible. But they aren’t irreducible; propositions consist of concepts, and not only the meaning of a proposition but also its truth depend on the validity of its constituent concepts. Take for example the statement “unicorns make great friends.” If this is said not to qualify as a proposition because as a whole it does not “represent how things are in the world,” then what exactly is it? And if it fails to “represent how things are in the world,” isn’t that because just one of its constituent elements – namely “unicorns” – fails to denote anything that actually exists in the world? After all, making great friends is possible in the world in which we live in – in fact I have made several over my lifetime. So already we’re seeing two points of liability here:
a) we now presumably need another category, in addition to ‘proposition’, if statements like “unicorns make great friends” are said to fail to qualify as propositions because one of their constituent elements fails to “represent how things are in the world,” and it’s not clear what that additional category might be; and 
b) the view that statements like “unicorns make great friends” cannot qualify as propositions because one of its elements fails to “represent how things are in the world” calls into question the notion that propositions are irreducible (since just one element of the statement in question disqualifies it).
In fact, we might even add a third issue to the list: if propositions already “represent how things are in the world,” wouldn’t that mean they’re true by definition? If I make the statement “Atlanta is the capitol of the US state of Georgia,” is that statement not true by virtue of the fact that it represents how things are in the world? In short, is “true proposition” a redundancy on the view Anderson expresses here?

On the definition of ‘truth’ that I offer in my Glossary of Terms, the statement “unicorns make great friends” would fail to qualify as a true statement since it does not identify a fact. But I see no reason why it cannot qualify as a proposition; after all, it can be expressed in other languages, which is one of the tests Anderson proposes for distinguishing propositions. So far as I know, there are propositions which are true, and there are propositions which are not true. The term “true proposition” in that case would not be not a redundancy. The problem for the statement in question is that ‘unicorn’ is not a true concept since it is not formed on the basis of objective input. It is a pseudo-concept formed by combining attributes from different organisms and projecting an imagined alternative to reality.

Again, Anderson does not cite the Christian bible for the epistemological positions which he affirms, and given that Christianity has no theory of concepts, I can see why believers might suppose that propositions are “entities” in the sense of independently existing, irreducible units which cannot be analyzed in terms of more fundamental components. Perhaps they believe that concepts just magically exist. Such unexamined assumptions, however, are not worth holding. Yet they serve an apologetic purpose, so apologists lack motivation to apply a little critical thinking here; it’s just asserted, and then it's time to move forward as though it were true (even though ‘true’ never gets defined).

But despite the fact that Christianity has no theory of concepts, we cannot simply ignore them as if concept theory had no starring role in epistemology. Cornelius Van Til, one of Anderson’s own heroes, tells us explicitly: “To know is to conceptualize” (The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, p. 113). I don’t know how the integral relationship between concepts and knowledge could be more explicitly affirmed. And yet, if the Christian bible ever speaks of knowledge, one will never find a discussion of concepts anywhere in its several thousand pages. One will read all about sacrifice, wars, circumcision, adultery, murder, ostracization, condemnation, affection for one’s enemies, etc., but one will nowhere read about the nature of concepts in the bible.

Notice that both “to know” and “to conceptualize” are verbs (infinitives to be exact), and verbs denote action. As concepts, verbs confer identity to actions. But by conferring identity to actions, presuppositionalists who assert that conferring identity to action means there can be no change (cf. here) performatively contradict themselves whenever they say “God knows,” for: (a) knowing is an action, (b) using a verb to denote an action grants that the action so denoted has identity (i.e., it’s distinct from everything else, including other actions), and yet (c) the Christian god is said to be immutable and unchanging. But action is the identity of change. Thus, if knowing is an action, then entities which do not and/or cannot change would be incapable of knowing anything. Thus, the whole presuppositionalist argument self-detonates from within.

Van Til’s statement associating knowing with conceptualization may be too damning an admission than his followers can deal with. Christianity’s liability in this department is not constrained merely to the fact that it has no theory of concepts – it’s much worse. If knowing is inherently conceptual in nature, what implications might this have for the claim that the Christian god is the foundation of knowledge as such? In 2007 I presented an argument for the conclusion that an omniscient mind, if there could be such a thing, would not have knowledge in conceptual form (see here). One Christian apologist named Peter Pike apparently sensed the threat which this argument poses for presuppositionalism and attempted, unsuccessfully, to undermine it. At the end of the day, however, even he had to concede that “God's knowledge--what He Himself knows--is not conceptual” (see here).

The idea here should be fairly easy to grasp: concepts are a means of integrating the data provided by man’s senses in order to expand his awareness beyond what he can and does perceive; concepts fulfill the task of enabling man to know things beyond what he can see, hear, touch, etc. If I’m standing in Denver, Colorado, I cannot see what’s happening in Birmingham, Alabama or Bangkok, Thailand. The range of man’s perceptual awareness is limited to a very tiny radius. But by forming concepts, man can “transcend” the limited range of his awareness and cognitively grasp things which he will never perceive. Hence my cousin in Phoenix can call me and tell me about the new car she just purchased, and I, residing some three thousand miles away and having already formed the concept ‘car’, I can integrate what she tells me and know what she’s talking about. Concepts make all this possible. By contrast, an omniscient being would have direct awareness of everything at all times everywhere throughout all of time simultaneously; concepts would not only be unnecessary, they would only get in the way. In other words, because an omniscient mind would have direct awareness (analogous to the immediate awareness of man’s perceptual faculties) of everything in existence, it would not have any use for the awareness-expanding benefits of conceptualization any more than a rocket-driving astronaut would need a Volkswagen to travel from one celestial body to another.

If “to know is to conceptualize,” as Van Til unabashedly affirms, and the Christian god, being an omniscient mind, would not have its knowledge in conceptual form and therefore would not conceptualize anything to begin with, then the claim that the Christian god is the foundation of knowledge self-detonates from within. It carries within itself its own seeds of self-destruction.

So how could a being whose own “knowledge” (if we could even call it that at this point) would at the very least not be in conceptual form, serve as the standard for the knowledge of human beings, who do have their knowledge in conceptual form? No explanation is provided to bridge this fundamental gap; even worse, it’s as if apologists did not even realize just how great a gulf this really is.

Anderson’s claim that “propositions themselves are independent of human language” is also problematic, at least it seems that it would be so from the Christian perspective. Singling out “human language” implies that there are other languages in mind here, whether or not propositions themselves are independent of those language is yet another question. But what other languages would Anderson have in mind here? Would that be canine language? Bovine language? Angelic language? Satanic language? Would it be divine language? What would that be like? Indeed, would a divine being even have a language to begin with? “Language is a code of visual-auditory symbols that serves the psycho-epistemological function of conveying concepts into the mental equivalent of concretes” (Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 10). We already know, however, that an omniscient mind would not have its knowledge (if it could be said to have knowledge – “to know is to conceptualize”) in conceptual form, so it would not have any use for converting concepts into the mental equivalent of concretes. Moreover, a wholly immaterial being, as the Christian god is supposed to be, would not have the physical structures in place necessary for visual-auditory symbols. None of these functions would apply in the case of an immaterial, omniscient mind. Knowledge and language both become stolen concepts at this point.

Anderson’s reason for supposing that “propositions themselves are independent of human language” is that “one and the same proposition can be expressed in multiple languages.” And this is true: one can say “the sky is blue” in English its equivalent in other languages as well, but it’s not clear how it follow from this that “propositions themselves are independent of human language.” I know of no proposition that is knowable without language, but if Anderson is aware of any, I’d like to see some examples.

I will say, however, that the expressibility of ideas in different languages points to another aspect of human cognition which is not very convenient for theism: “To a person who understands the function of language,” points out Rand in The Voice of Reason (p. 121), “it makes no difference what sounds are chosen to name things, provided these sounds refer to clearly defined aspects of reality.” Similarly for visual symbols. The point here is that while words are necessary to symbolize concepts, the choice of visual-auditory symbols we use for representing concepts is ultimately arbitrary. Thus in English we have ‘sky’, in French we have ‘ciel’, in German we have ‘Himmel’, in Russian we have ‘небо’, in Thai we have ‘ฟ้า’, and so on. The key here is consistency. But the fact that words are in a sense arbitrary (there’s nothing in reality which tells us that the region of the atmosphere where clouds reside must be referred to by the visual-auditory symbol “sky”) raises the question: Why is the Christian god so preoccupied with "the Word" when words as such have this arbitrary nature to them? The Christian god is not characterized in the bible as celebrating “the Concept” or even “the Proposition,” but rather “the Word.” Maybe the primitives who penned the bible were as clueless about concepts as today’s apologists are!

For Anderson, propositions are not only immaterial things, but they have this eternal nature to them. He argues this as follows:
Propositions are real, but they are not physical things. In fact, it turns out that propositions have the same kind of features as thoughts. But propositions cannot be merely human thoughts because there are truths (i.e., true propositions) that are independent of human beings (e.g., logical truths, mathematical truths, and truths about the physical laws of the cosmos). Indeed, had humans never existed, there would still be innumerable truths about the world—including the truth that humans don’t exist!
Not only does this line of reasoning beg the question outright (how do we know that propositions are “independent of human beings”? Because they’d be true even if human beings didn’t exist!), it hinges on a category error: essentially, it mistakes truthful identifications (a cognitive activity) with the facts they identify. If human beings did not exist, they would not exist, and if identification is an action of human cognition (which it is), there’d be no acts of identification to call true or untrue.

Anderson puts all these ill-fated stepstones in place in order to lead the reader to the view that propositions must be “God’s thoughts.” In other words, as with other theistic arguments, by the time we get to the conclusion here, we still have no alternative but to imagine the god whose existence is said to be thereby established.

Why not explore the conceptual nature of knowledge (as Van Til himself puts it, “to know is to conceptualize”), understand how concepts are dependent upon the input of sense perception for their content, and adhere to the fact that existence exists independent of consciousness? Enshrining an invisible magic being in the fake environment invented by the imagination is not a formula for developing reliable epistemological theory.

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...

Another awesome entry, Dawson! Thanks again!


Robert Kidd said...

My first thought was yes knowledge depends on truth but what does truth depend on? It depends on the primacy of existence. That leaves out his god's mind as the metaphysical ground of all truth.

Robert Kidd

James P. Caputo said...

Anderson attempts to make propositions and thoughts appear mysterious and otherworldly by stating that they are “non physical.” But he overlooks that we are aware of them by that which is physical about them - that is, the squiggly symbols on the page or the audio symbols we speak - be in out loud or to ourselves while thinking. Absent the inner voice we hear speaking in our minds (audio percepts stored in memory), there would be no way to be aware of propositions or our own thoughts since perception can only perceive the physical.