Does God Exist? A Debate (5): Christian Conclusion, B.C. Askins
This post contains my final rebuttal and conclusion. Dan will have the last post.
I pointed out in my initial rebuttal that Dan undermines his own credibility when he demonstrates that he doesn’t understand Christianity, such as when he conflates theological terms with their non-theological senses (i.e. equivocating between general uses of the term “incomprehensibility” and the specific definition of “divine incomprehensibility”). Ironically, Dan’s latest response reveals that he doesn’t really understand atheism either, thoroughly undermining himself and his views. He doesn’t seem to be familiar with the common distinction between “strong atheism” and “weak atheism.” Whether Dan realizes it or not, his opening statement represents negative/weak/soft atheism. Positive/strong/hard atheism would present an argument for the non-existence of God; Dan presents no such argument. To be clear, I referred to Dan’s position as “weak atheism” because that’s what his position is called within the taxonomy of various non-theistic viewpoints; however, I did not “imply that [his] position is consequently weak.” I explicitly stated that it is weak then demonstrated its numerous weaknesses.
[Note for readers: weak atheism is far more common than strong atheism these days, probably due in some part to the contributions of village atheist popularizers like Dick Dawkins and Chris Hitchens (among others), who characterize atheism as “the absence of belief” in divinity. They are well within their rights to define their own position, but this definition has the unfortunate consequence of downgrading atheists, in this regard, to the same noetic level as shellfish or a Chevy Lumina: they all lack a belief in God.]
Debate Topic: Does God Exist?
Dan asserts, “Not only is it not necessary, it is not possible to prove that such a God does not exist.” For whatever reason, Dan turns his guns on strong atheism here for a moment, asserting that position is neither necessary nor even possible (a rather strong modal claim which he does not even attempt to substantiate). After nonchalantly waving aside his half of the burden of proof, he also dismisses an entire group of his fellow atheists then moves ahead with the debate as though nothing happened. It reminds me of Monty Python’s famous Black Knight, except all of Dan’s wounds are self-inflicted in this instance.
Recall that the subject of the debate is the question: “Does God exist?” My answer is “yes,” and I presented a pair of arguments to support my affirmation along with two arguments against atheism; Dan’s answer is “no,” but he has not presented a single argument in defense of his denial. Instead, he has used an altogether-too-common tactic of trying to shift the burden of proof entirely to me. At a tactical level, Dan has not even entered the debate. Yet he seems utterly unaware of this. He doesn’t understand Christianity—he repeatedly argues with straw men, even after being corrected. He doesn’t understand atheism—even the most basic nomenclature associated with his own position eludes him. He could have saved himself a lot of time by just typing “Nuh uh” as his latest response and left it at that. He presents no arguments (meaning “premises implying conclusions”) and merely persists in assertively asserting his own assertions.
Since Dan hasn’t presented much new material in his response, rather than engaging in a painfully iterative summary of our exchange (i.e. I said x, then Dan said y, then I said z and critiqued y, then Dan re-asserted y, so I reiterate x and z and my critique of y, scratch, woof, yawn, etc.), I’ll just provide some criticisms not yet mentioned and briefly point out issues already addressed.
Dan’s repeatedly referenced reason for adopting weak atheism is “Russell’s teapot.” This is a reference to a passing illustration in philosopher Bertrand Russell’s unpublished article “Is There a God?” For those interested, here is the salient section of that article:
“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.”
First, all sides can acknowledge that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. There is no evidence for Russell’s celestial teapot, but this alone does not disprove its existence. For someone to conclude that Russell’s teapot doesn’t exist merely because there isn’t evidence for its existence is to argue from ignorance (an informal fallacy). Rather, although Russell does not mention this, it is positive evidence for its non-existence which leads us to conclude the celestial teapot does not exist, such as that NASA (or the Russian space program) never sent a teapot into orbit, matter doesn’t self-organize into celestial ceramic china, etc. Either Russell argues from ignorance or he conveniently omits the positive evidence which leads him to believe in the teapot’s non-existence.
Second, Russell presents some category confusion in the analogy. The celestial teapot is causally, explanatorily, epistemically, morally, transcendentally irrelevant; on the other hand, God is posited as the necessary condition for each of those categories. This confuses the category distinctions between Creator and creature. The dilemma is that the atheist wants to say that God is just as irrelevant as the teapot—however, he must establish this point before the analogy holds. But if he could establish this independently then the analogy would be superfluous. It’s rhetorical sleight of hand. Russell’s illustration suggests that God is irrelevant by referring to an analogy which rests upon an unknown, unarticulated argument that God is irrelevant. In other words, he’s arguing for a conclusion without a premise or an inference via an imaginative fairy tale about a flying teapot.
Methodologically, this approach also commits what Greg Bahnsen referred to (in his debate with Gordon Stein) as the crackers in the pantry fallacy:
“We might ask, ‘Is there a box of crackers in the pantry?’ And we know how we would go about answering that question. But that is a far, far cry from the way we go about answering questions determining the reality of say, barometric pressure, quasars, gravitational attraction, elasticity, radioactivity, natural laws, names, grammar, numbers, the university itself that you’re now at, past events, categories, future contingencies, laws of thought, political obligations, individual identity over time, causation, memories, dreams, or even love or beauty. In such cases, one does not do anything like walk to the pantry and look inside for the crackers. There are thousands of existence or factual questions, and they are not at all answered in the same way in each case.”
Russell assumes (possibly due in some part to his “logical atomism”) that the methodology for discerning the existence of a celestial tea pot is the same as for discerning the existence of God. But, as I argued in my opening statement, the question of the existence of God has its own transcendental methodological concerns, analogous in many ways to proving the existence of space and time (note: actual space and time, not a mere model of space-time).
So Dan’s reason for abdicating his half of the burden of proof in our debate is (at worst) based upon an argument from ignorance or (at best) category confusion and a flawed methodology.
Dan has asserted and re-asserted that the definition of God “fails to meet the standard of coherence.” When given the opportunity to substantiate his claims, he roasts a straw man to the ground. Our debate (and Dan’s YouTube channel) is covered with a thick layer of the burnt remains of straw men. Here’s a humble suggestion for how Dan might increase the credibility of his position in the future: read, properly interpret, then cite a reputable systematic theology text’s definition of one of these terms, then imply a contradiction from that definition—rather than supplying your own blatantly self-contradictory definition then implying a contradiction from it just by repeating it sarcastically. All of Dan’s purported contradictions in Christian theology are pre-empted by an introductory familiarity with Christian doctrine. When he persists in his equivocal use of “incomprehensibility” he does so to the further detriment of his own credibility.
Then he raises other purported examples of contradictions in Christianity, such as that God “not clearing the guilty” contradicts “forgiving iniquity.” A cursory familiarity with doctrines such as penal substitutionary atonement, double imputation, and union with Christ preempt such simplistic contradiction proposals. He gives a series of rhetorical questions on why “living” and “immutable” are incompatible attributes, but all he demonstrates is that he’s working without any familiarity with these terms in their theological senses. Until Dan decides to become familiar with Christian theology his critiques will remain a superficial example of anti-preaching to the a-theological choir.
Dan happily clarified that he uses the term “axiom” to refer to “a necessary truth foundational to subsequent knowledge claims.” Since this definition was already criticized in my initial response, I won’t say much here. As I said before, when someone calls a philosophical proposition an “axiom” he is usually deceptively attempting to borrow credibility from mathematical terminology while persuading someone to accept his beliefs as necessarily true without any argument for doing so. It’s more of the same equivocation and rhetorical sleight of hand already discussed.
I’ve decided to coin a term for Dan’s particular approach to criticism: reificatomania. As I’ve already said, Dan sees fallacious reification everywhere. When I refer to an abstraction, such as a number or logical rule, as a mental object Dan believes this is “reification in broad daylight.” I’m not attributing anything other than mere existence to abstract ideas; ideas exist as ideas, thoughts as thoughts, abstractions as abstractions. Existence isn’t a concrete quality like color or density.
Dan says, “Numbers are not real, existent entities, but rather mental constructs used to model the behavior we observe in reality.” Do “mental constructs” exist? If so, then he commits his own idiosyncratic version of the reification fallacy. If these “mental constructs” do not exist, then what could they be and what’s the point in referencing them?
Existence could only be a concrete attribute according to a particular sort of materialism; but Dan will need to justify his materialism (if he is a materialist) before he can establish his peculiar application of the reification fallacy. But Dan hasn’t even made it clear if he is a materialist, much less whether he can justify that position. This is just another example of the question-begging which I mentioned in my initial response. You can’t refute immaterialism by reference to materialism; it is fallaciously circular.
Definition of Personality
My definition of person is “a rational, self-conscious entity.” Dan objects and says that human beings are “in virtually every sense, not persons per Ben’s definition.” While Dan may have placed his own status as a “rational, self-conscious entity” into some doubt by his performance in this debate, human beings as a class clearly fit well within my definition.
My definition doesn’t include physicality as an essential aspect of personality. Dan disagrees. Pointing to the fact of his disagreement could be the basis for proposing a debate like the one we’re already having, but it does not provide any substance to the debate we’re currently conducting. Again, Dan would need to substantiate his reasons for disagreement to even begin to enter this debate—but it’s a little late in the game for that, I’m afraid.
I’ve already pointed out some of the absurdities entailed by Dan’s position regarding the non-existence of numbers and truth and logic apart from the existence of human brains. Simply, a proposition about the future can’t be true today, but non-true at the point in the future to which the proposition refers; that is completely absurd—as demonstrated by the global brain death reductio.
It’s also noteworthy that his position begs the question against mine. He asserts, “However, if tomorrow there are no brains, neither the question, or the numbers involved, would be conceptualized.” This assumes that God’s mind does not exist in order to assert that God’s mind does not exist. Dan’s position on the existence of God, numbers, logic, and truth is a philosophical solvent which dissolves itself.
I raised the question of how Dan proposes to bridge the subject-object gap. He wants to treat logic, math, and truth (at least) as purely subjective matters, but still wishes to maintain that there is some objective reality out there—math and logic and truth are just models of this reality, but by what does Dan transcend both subject and object in order to even draw this distinction in the first place? We don’t know because, apparently, Dan doesn’t know.
He weakly asserts, “It’s not a contradiction to have an objective reality exist while only being able to experience it subjectively.” But how does Dan know this is not a contradiction? He asserts there is an objective reality out there, but that all of math, science, reasoning, and experience are locked up in a purely subjective realm, with no bridge between the two. He doesn’t provide any answers, but does lamely footnote himself as having “debunked [the core of presuppositionalist argument] at some length in other writings.” If it’s anything like the so-called “debunking” we’ve observed in this debate, you’ll have to pardon me if I find this form of self-referential footnoting unpersuasive.
The Metaphor of Misinterpretation
I pointed out that Dan clearly misinterpreted James Anderson’s paper “Calvinism and the First Sin.” Again, Dan asserts I am mistaken. Unfortunately, his interpretation is remarkably wrong. I can’t even begin to understand how he draws his conclusions on this point. This interaction could be spread out metaphorically across our entire debate. I argue for a point—Dan declares that he disagrees—I demonstrate Dan is wrong—Dan reiterates his disagreement.
I emailed Dr. Anderson and asked him to adjudicate between our interpretations of his paper. He replied to me, “You’re basically correct about what I said. My point is that from the perspective of the sinning agent, the act of sin is irrational. It cannot be rational to sin. Thus one cannot identify reasons for which Adam sinned. That this is what I meant can be confirmed from the references in the footnote. I’m certainly not claiming that the Christian doctrine of sin is intrinsically irrational (or any other Christian doctrine for that matter)… Dan apparently thinks that I’ve openly conceded that Calvinism is irrational, which couldn’t be further from the truth… He seems to assume that any appeal to mystery is irrational. But he doesn’t argue the point. And as you know, I wrote an entire book arguing the very opposite!” [Note for readers: James’ book, which I hyperlinked, is one of my absolute favorite works of philosophical theology. For what it’s worth, I don’t recommend many books without reservation, but this is one exception.]
Hopefully this clarifies things for Dan and he will openly forsake his misreading of Anderson’s paper (and correct or retract his errant YouTube video which is based upon the same error).
I’d like to thank Dan for taking the time to engage in this debate and I wish him the best in the future. (To be clear, by “I wish him the best” I mean I hope he someday repents of his atheism and turns to Christ to redeem him, epistemology and all.)
As I said in my opening statement, my belief in God is basic and intuitive. Dan simply hasn’t given me any reasons to doubt my intuitions on this subject (or any subject, for that matter).
I also stated in my opener, “On the question of the existence of God, either atheists are radically self-deceived or theists are… One of us is colossally wrong.” I suggest Dan’s half of our exchange has convincingly demonstrated my assertion to be true:
Dan believes proving the non-existence of God is impossible—yet persists in believing in God’s non-existence; he refuses to accept standard theological definitions, even when corrected; he’s unfamiliar with the basic taxonomy of his own position; he equivocated frequently; he engaged in fallacious reasoning, including ipse dixitism and petitio principii; his position on abstract objects entails absurdity and self-contradiction; he places himself on the horns of a dilemma with his idiosyncratic application of the reification fallacy; when questioned, he doesn’t even attempt to provide an answer to a fundamental epistemic issue, i.e. the subject-object problem; his philosophy is difficult to discern, but it resembles a sort of diluted logical positivism—a thoroughly debunked view, left on the philosophical ash heap by Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, and P.F. Strawson (among others) some fifty years ago; finally, he has refused correction on his tortuously obtuse reading of Dr. Anderson’s paper.
In other words, he is “colossally wrong.”
Dan, the last word is yours. Use it wisely. With great power there must also come—great responsibility!