When reviewing theistic arguments, one of the things I’m always on the lookout for are any caveats which their defenders might include in their premises to keep those following along from getting lost in the psychological snowstorm of the imaginary. The imaginary and the non-existent indeed look very much the same, and they behave very much the same as well. If the believer’s god is actually real and not imaginary, one would think that apologists would take great care in preventing lay thinkers from mistaking what they imagine for the god enshrined by their religion. But curiously such concern is conspicuously absent from theistic defenses.
Consider for example the cosmological argument, a version of which I examined in my previous entry. I know of no presentation of this argument in which its defender warns his audience against mistaking what they may be imagining for the god whose existence it is purported to prove. Apologists either are not concerned that those whom they seek to persuade might stumble and treat what they imagine as the god their religion calls them to worship, or they don’t want to draw attention to this as a possibility. Another alternative is that defenders of such arguments are so habituated in treating what they imagine as though it were real that it would never occur to them to acknowledge such a possibility or erect signposts along the way.
But notice how the argument begins by slithering past the signpost which should be in place to warn thinkers that they’re venturing into the imaginary. The first premise of the argument states:
Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its beginning
By contrast, we don’t apply the verb ‘to begin’ self-reflexively to a concrete’s existence per se – e.g., the mountain began, the tree began, or the car began. And that’s because we never observe concretes just popping into existence. If your neighbor said to you, “the hinges of my garage began three days ago,” you would rightly ask: “Began [doing] what?”
In the case of the cosmological argument’s first premise, the clause “whatever begins” is not intended to denote the beginning of an action, but actual concrete entities – i.e., their very being, even though such a notion has no objective reference. The indefinite nature of the pronoun “whatever” is sufficient to hide this sleight of hand from view for it can include both actions and concretes when used generally.
This is how easily a superficially crafted premise can slip illicit notions by the boundaries separating fact from fantasy without calling attention to the fact that the thinking involved has gone of track. Without applying just a little critical thinking to what the premise is affirming, one can easily accept a questionable premise without rational warrant. “Of course things that begin to exist must have a cause,” would be the desired reaction, for the implied alternative would be that things can begin without causation. But since ‘beginning’ as such belongs in the category of action, naturally one would grant that causation is necessary for action. But concretes are not actions! Concretes are preconditional to actions. Without being mindful of this distinction, the argument leads us into the fake environment of theistic fantasy.
Consider Greg Bahnsen’s opening statement in his often-cited debate with Gordon Stein. Here we find that he makes at least passing reference to a number of issues relating to “the nature of evidence, the presuppositional conflict of worldviews, and… the transcendental argument for God’s existence,” such as various fallacies, types of existence claims, whether or not “all existence claims are questions of matters about facts,” (that Bahnsen holds that it is “mistaken” to suppose that all existence claims are about matters of fact is rather telling), philosophical pre-commitments, “the testimony of the solar system” and “the persuasion of the sea,” tales of miracles from the Christian bible, the anonymous “500 witnesses of Christ’s resurrection,” an alleged “impossibility of the contrary” and the claim that “without [the Christian god] it is impossible to prove anything.”
But at no point does Bahnsen express any concern for the distinction between reality and imagination or warn his audience against straying beyond fact and into fantasy. Nor does he articulate any set of principles by which we can objectively distinguish between what he calls “God” and what he very well may merely be imagining. Nothing Bahnsen presents in his opening statement gives us any confidence that his sphere of argument is delineated in any identifiable way so as to exclude figments of his imagination from contaminating his conclusion or any stage of argument leading to it. For all that Bahnsen does present in his opening statement and elsewhere in his debate with Stein, he may have himself passed a dozen signposts warning of departure from reality and never knew it. For his own worldview depends so heavily on treating what we can only imagine as though it were unchallengeable truth and rudimentary to thinking as such. In short, Bahnsen’s worldview systemically fails to distinguish between reality and imagination.
In his paper If Knowledge Then God: The Epistemological Theistic Arguments of Plantinga and Van Til, Christian apologist James Anderson surveys seven different arguments for the existence of the Christian god, but at no point in the presentations or defenses of these arguments does he show any concern for ensuring that thinkers whom these arguments are intended to persuade not lose sight of the distinction between the real and the imaginary. Given the nature of theistic belief, which centers on worship of something invisible, supernatural and capable of actions which we nowhere observe in reality, the hazard of supposing that said god may merely be imaginary is something one would hope such arguments would guard against. I don’t see that they do.
Perhaps somewhere in his many writings Anderson does provide guidance on clarifying a distinction between his god and what is really just imaginary, but I have not found it (and had I come across it, I would surely have flagged it!). Rather, it seems like one missed opportunity after another. A case in point is an entry which Anderson posted on his blog in 2018 titled Wikiality. There he agonizes over a definition of ‘reality’ that he found in Wikipedia, which reads as follows:
Reality is all of physical existence, as opposed to that which is merely imaginary. It is the name for all of physical existence, but the word is also used in a declension to speak of parts of reality that include the cognitive idea of an individual “reality” (i.e. psychology), to a “situational reality,” or a “fictional reality.”
This is awful in so many ways. In the first place, it defines reality as physical existence, and contrasts physical existence with the “merely imaginary.” In other words, it’s a metaphysically prejudicial definition that assumes physicalism, the view that only physical things exist. Accordingly, God turns out to be non-existent by definition! (If only it were that easy to defend atheism.) Likewise, minds, thoughts, numbers, sets, propositions, and all other non-physical entities are dismissed as “merely imaginary” by sheer verbal fiat. (That would include, presumably, the mind of the person who contributed that definition of reality.)
So for Anderson this opens as it were a kind of gap – a chasm between physical things on the one hand and “that which is merely imaginary” on the other – where some critical thinking needs to be applied in order to determine whether some proposed existent is part of reality or not part of reality. We should agree that “that which is merely imaginary” is not real. But if we allow that there are actually existing things which are not physical in nature (e.g., consciousness, minds), then for those things which do not fall in the category of “physical things,” one would – so I’d think – want to apply care in ensuring that we are not mistaking “that which is merely imaginary” with the what-is-real-but-not-physical category. But nowhere that I can find does Anderson seem to do this. He refers to “other non-physical entities,” things which he presumably insists are real, but he does not identify them or the means by which he might be aware of them. If the means by which he’s aware of them is in fact indistinguishable from the psychological operation we call imagination, then how is it that these “other non-physical entities” are not imaginary? Blank out.
Or consider Michael Butler’s The Transcendental Argument for God’s Existence in which he offers the following:
Transcendental arguments attempt to discover the preconditions of human experience. They do so by taking some aspect of human experience and investigating what must be true in order for that experience to be possible. Transcendental arguments typically have the following form. For x [some aspect of human experience] to be the case, y must also be the case since y is the precondition of x. Since x is the case, y is the case. The argument mentioned above serves as a clear example of a transcendental argument. For causality to be possible, God has to exist since the existence of God is the precondition of causality. Since there is causality, God exists. A corollary of this is that whenever non-believers employ the concept of causation, they are borrowing from the Christian worldview since only on a Christian worldview does causation make sense.
For causality to be possible, The Force has to existence since the existence of The Force is the precondition of causality. Since there is causality, The Force exists.
Butler states that “only on a Christian worldview does causation make sense,” but this is without warrant. For one, this concept seems conspicuously absent from the teachings find in the pages of the Christian bible; if the concept of causality were a specifically Christian concept, there’d need to be a very good reason for such an oversight. Moreover, causality is a relationship between an entity’s actions and its own nature, a relationship which obtains independent of conscious activity. But on the Christian view, there is no such thing as something that exists or obtains independent of conscious activity, for everything which the Christian worldview teaches reduces to the primacy of consciousness metaphysics.
The kind of “argument” which Butler presents with the label “transcendental” is something we can expect from a worldview which enshrines the imaginary, for even Butler’s rendition leaves us with no alternative but to imagine the god whose existence it is intended to prove. Moreover, at no point does Butler express any concern for ensuring that those considering his argument do not fall into the trap of misidentifying what they imagine for the god affirmed by Christianity.
It is clear that Butler acknowledges the human mind’s capacity to imagine, but he does nothing to protect his argument and its intended conclusion from its contamination. Curiously, when he addresses the triune nature of the god of Christianity, Butler contrasts this with a “quadrune” alternative posited by the fictional counter-example known as “Fristianity” – a Christianity with a four-headed god instead of a three-headed god. Butler writes:
The only way we know that God is a Trinity is that he revealed it to us – mere speculation or empirical investigation would never lead us to this conclusion. But the Fristian worldview, which is, ex hypothesis, identical to Christianity in every other way, asserts that its god is a quadrinity. But if Fristianity is otherwise identical to Christianity, the only way for us to know this would be for Fristian god to reveal this to us. But there is a problem with this. Supposing Fristianity had inspired scriptures (which it would have to have since it is all other ways identical to Christianity), these scriptures would have to reveal that the Fristian God is one in four. But notice that by positing a quadrinity, the Fristian scriptures would be quite different from the Christian Scriptures. Whereas the Christian Scriptures teach that, with regard to man's salvation, God the Father ordains, God the Son accomplishes and God the Spirit applies, the Fristian scriptures would have to teach a very different order. But exactly how would the four members of its imagined godhead be involved in man's salvation?
In his paper Why & What: A Brief Introduction to Christianity, apologist Douglas Jones begins his case for the Christian worldview by imploring his readers to engage their imagination:
Imagine that you are mistaken about everything you hold dear. Suppose you wake up one morning and clearly realize that your long-held, day-to-day views of nature, social values, and self are obviously mistaken. Common things that you have seen for years take on a whole new light. The world hasn't changed, but different things stand out in odd ways. Things you once adored are now utterly disgusting. Things you once hated now command your deepest loyalty. You can now see through your motives and rationalizations in a way hidden before. How could you have been so naive?
In the same paper, Jones acknowledges “the human imagination's desire to make a god after its own likeness” and states that “the Church… ought to worship God in the way God prescribed and not according to vain imaginations.” It’s clear from these three places in his paper that Jones is aware of the power of human imagination. But if convincing people that Christianity requires them to begin by imagining an alternative to the reality they know, if man’s imagination has a “desire to make a god after its own likeness,” and if there’s a possibility of confusing the way one worships a god between the way it prescribes on the one hand and how one may vainly imagine doing so, what guardrails does Christianity put in place to ensure believers aren’t falling into the trap of their own imagination? How exactly does Jones suggest we distinguish between what he calls “God” and what we may simply be imagining? What reliable methodology can the believer apply to ensure that he faithfully distinguishes between the way the Christian wants him to worship it and the “vain imaginations” Jones warns about here? Again, blank out.
My view is that all thinkers should exercise care in ensuring they are aware when they are objectively reasoning about actual things and when the trajectory of their speculations is on the verge of drawing them onto the turf of fantasy. Surveying the several theistic defenses above, we see that apologists consistently fail precisely in doing this. If Christianity were in fact true, if the Christian god were in fact real and not merely imaginary, why do apologists default so conspicuously in this area, and why is it that time and again theistic arguments leave us with no alternative but to imagine the god they’re supposed to prove? Theistic arguments are all joined at the hip in their disregard for precluding the imagination as the true path to belief all the while pretending to have some kind of philosophical credibility by mimicking the form of serious argument. The jig, I dare say, is up.
Even Rod Serling saw the value of signposts warning of departures from reality in the opening of The Twilight Zone:
You're travelling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead - your next stop, the Twilight Zone!
by Dawson Bethrick