Monday, January 16, 2023

Buried Signposts

Some fifteen years ago or so, I watched an episode of a program called “I Shouldn’t Be Alive.” The episode, titled “Lost in the Snow” (available here), told the story of the Stolpa family, a young couple who got lost with their infant child in very remote northwestern Nevada during a snowstorm in the winter. They started driving from the Bay Area in late December 1992, heading to Idaho for a family gathering. Hoping to make time and avoid a heavy blizzard hitting the Reno area, they headed north and took a small highway into a very sparsely populated portion of Washoe County. Unfortunately for them, the sign on the highway notifying motorists that it was closed, was buried under snow. They got stuck in a frozen desert and eventually ran out of gas, and their harrowing adventure was just beginning. Luckily they survived, but the lessons of their experience are worth considering. 

For me, the story brings home an important point: our minds do not have a built-in signpost telling us when we’re departing reality and wandering into the realm of the imaginary. Religion is like a road into a fantasy-land with no signs warning drivers that they’ve gone beyond a fundamental boundary. When believers read the gospels, for example, and imagine the Jesus depicted therein preaching and performing miracles, they can be so engrossed in what they consider a solemn experience that they do not realize how far they have ventured beyond the realm of fact and into a figment of their own mental creation. What’s more, they think they’ve arrived at some sacred destination which they like to think of as a spiritual awakening of sorts, when in fact they’ve shut down their reasoning by going off-course and getting stranded in a wilderness far from reality. 

This is why a philosophy which explicitly teaches us the fundamental difference between the real and the imaginary is so important. It is the only foolproof mechanism which can reliably point out important boundaries, such as when one’s thinking reaches the edge of what is objectively knowable and is on the verge of plunging into a fake environment.

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
The argument starts off by exploiting the familiar validity of causation being involved in the beginning of an action, so most thinkers won’t question the meaning of this premise. For example, the rain began to fall, the fire began to spread, the eggs began to burn, etc. Even when nouns are used as the object of the verb ‘to begin’, actions are implied and understood – e.g., we began our trip in June, the teacher will begin the lecture in five minutes, John begins his day at 6:00 AM. When we speak of things beginning in time, they’re essentially processional or sequential in nature, inherently taking place in time – e.g., the music began with the brass section, the poem began with a somber tone, the argument began with a faulty premise.

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 conception of ‘reality’ did not sit well with Anderson. He complains as follows:
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.)
Now it’s unclear that the author of the definition in question intends to exclude minds from reality, either purposely or implicitly, but it is noteworthy that Anderson lumps minds as such in with categories that are psychological in nature, such as thoughts, numbers and propositions. While one may object to the supposition that “only physical things exist,” there is no question that physical things do in fact exist, and I don’t know how one could object to contrasting reality with “that which is merely imaginary.” Moreover, I take it from Anderson’s objections here that he grants that the merely imaginary is not real, since he does not object to the conception of reality excluding this category.

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.
Here we have, if nothing else, essentially assertion by stipulation rather than argument. For there is no actual inferring going on here. Instead of identifying the means by which man can have awareness of what Butler calls “God” and distinguishing those means from imagination, Butler is simply insisting that the existence of his god is a precondition for causality. But it’s clear that one can recast this line of would-be inference with something which (ostensibly) all parties would agree is imaginary, to wit:
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.
Here the apologist would be right to challenge the assumption that “The Force is the precondition of causality,” but would he challenge this argument’s defenders to identify the means by which they are aware of “The Force” and distinguish those means from mere imagination? We can probably expect the apologist to contest this variant of the transcendental argument by asserting distinctions between his god on the one hand and The Force on the other, finding faults with the latter to which the former is exempt. But this would beg the question for such an objection would assume the truth of the very point in question, which is the claim that his god exists. It would also do nothing to rescue Butler’s god from the suspicion that it is merely imaginary.

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?
If the godhead of Fristianity is “imagined,” as Butler clearly allows here, why isn’t it the case that the godhead of Christianity also not “imagined”? How exactly do we distinguish Christianity’s “trinity” from something we’re merely imagining? I’m reminded of Steve Hays’ admission that “an imagined Jesus is just an imaginary Jesus.” Likewise, an imagined trinity is just an imaginary trinity.

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?
Here there’s no mistake: at the very outset of considering Jones’ case for Christianity, we must consult our imagination and move forward from there. Clearly there’s no chance for a signpost to warn us of danger, for the starting point of such a venture is well beyond its position. Indeed, Jones’ procedure is that we start by imagining that everything we have known is wrong.

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!
But religion does not. Religion can only survive so long as such signposts are buried under snow.

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...

Excellent! Thanks once again, Dawson!


Robert Kidd said...


Right after I started reading this latest entry I was watching a short on youtube in which Harry Binswanger was talking about second handedness as a replacement of reality with people and their words. It struck me that these people have turned over the steering wheel of their lives to others and they are just along for the ride. They can look out the window and listen to tunes and not worry about the direction signs or the caution signs because they are trusting the driver to take care of that. For all they know the driver could be heading down a dead-end road.

Robert Kidd

Jason mc said...

The believer could say imagining supernatural beings is fine, and the signposts that stop the faithful from wondering into heretical flights of fancy are tradition, canonical texts, and/or the organised religion's leading authorities.

Jason mc said...

Also, thanks for the post, glad to see you return to the cosmological argument (and a few others! I'll have to try the imagination-reality distinction challenge on some people.

Robert Kidd said...


Sorry to go off topic but I have to share something with you. I have been in a discussion on a forum and I was discussing the analytic-senthetic dichotomy and why it's such a problem. Instead of the sneers and hatred I normall encounter I got this as a response:

"It's been a long time since I've been seriously interested in philosophy but on the strength of this video, and what you've said so far on the subject, this has me absolutely fascinated... it's just struck a chord on many levels for me. So next job is to read the book it recommends in that video, Ayn Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistomology.

From the moment you started talking about all this it's had me enthralled, as something that appeals both it its message and its method... ie the latter being that there just seems something systematic about all this that really appeals to the way my mind works. As for the message, I think it will be great to learn about but I think it will also teach me a lot about general philosophy by means of its comparison with it, so a win-win there... sometimes that's the best way to learn I think; by noticing the differences between things.

So yeah, welcome to the forum and thanks for introducing
me to these ideas."

I was floored and told her that there was a system, a most beautiful system and that she'd only seen the tiniest fraction of it.

The video I linked to was this one:

I have learned a great deal about that beautiful system from reading your blog. I've said it before and I'll say it again. Your blog is one of the most important resources for understanding this system.

A while back, I came here despondent over the state of the world, and I could not get anyone to take an honest look at these ideas. you helped me. I've learned so much from your work here. You have a gift for making this stuff understandable and relatable to our own lives.

Thank you.


Robert Kidd

Robert Kidd said...


You are not just writing a blog, you are changing lives.

Robert Kidd

Robert Kidd said...

Synthetic not senthetic. Jees.

Jason mc said...

It must have been on this blog that I first encountered this Rand quote: "Faith in the supernatural begins as faith in the superiority of others." Came to mind after posting my comment above.

Readers here may find this interesting, an exemplary firsthand illustration of Christian epistemology in a non-apologetics context:

"I am definitely more prone to fall--not only in lustful thoughts but everything in my life--I'm more prone to fall through my heart, rather than my brain, because I don't trust my brain. It's a lesson I've learned very, very early on. It's an essential thing for me, it's a fundamental thing for me; I simply do not trust my brain. I know the things I've believed when I was 15, and I could have sacrificed my life for the things I believed then, and I know how completely different were the things I believed when I was 25 and then 35, and now I'm in my 40s and I can see how my brain evolves or simply changes [...]"

"I've seen my brain [...] swear that [...] it is in possession of the truth, only to immediately be completely able to discard the truth and embrace another truth. And that has taught me to be very careful with what my brain tells me, and to always always prioritize faith over my brain. And faith doesn't mean just things I read in the Gospel but also things I read in the holy fathers and things I'm being told by people towards whom I try my best to be obedient such as my spiritual father, primarily, or my monastic brother, or even my community in the monastery here. I've learned to allow the circumstances of life and the people who are around me to to have greater input over my decisions and my behavior than my own brain, because my brain has failed me so frequently."


Strikingly unvarnished, eh? No apparent packaging of the message for a western post-Enlightenment audience. "Brain" is used a stand-in for... I'd call it independent reasoned judgement. I think presuppers would call it "autonomous thought" (which could also reasonably subsume the epistemological aspect of what Fr Seraphim calls the "heart", i.e. emotion).

Jason mc