B.C. Askins

The Man With the Golden Gun

Archive for the month “September, 2013”

Does God Exist? A Debate: (3) Initial Christian Rebuttal, B.C. Askins

Thank you, Dan, for your opening statement. Here is my initial response.

Strong vs. weak atheism
I’ll ask readers to note that in Dan’s first paragraph he chooses to defend weak atheism, rather than assume any burden of proof for his answer to the question “Does God exist?” This seems appropriate, given the rather weak responses in his opening statement. He immediately lowered the bar for his side of the debate, then failed to even meet that standard.

He states, “I do not claim, nor is it necessary, to prove that the Christian God does not exist… demonstrating that Ben’s arguments for the Christian God are fatally flawed is sufficient to conclude that such beliefs are irrational.” Recall that we are debating about the existence of God, not the mere rational status of my beliefs. All of my beliefs in this regard could be “fatally flawed” and that would not prove anything with respect to the subject of the debate. I am arguing, “God exists,” while Dan is merely arguing, “Some of Ben’s beliefs are irrational.” Let’s investigate now whether or not he has satisfied the significantly reduced burden of proof which he has placed upon himself.

Defining the term “God”
Dan alleges that there are many contradictions in the definition of God which I referenced in my opening statement. He doesn’t show that there are any contradictions, he merely alleges as much. He chooses divine incomprehensibility as noteworthy, then demonstrates that he hasn’t been taking good notes.

Equivocation is the misleading use of terms which have multiple definitions. When Dan says of divine incomprehensibility, “It would be a simple matter for me to agree with this part of the definition and claim victory,” he equivocates (an informal fallacy). “Incomprehensible” is synonymous with “non-intelligibility” in most contexts; however, divine incomprehensibility refers to the doctrine that God cannot be fully comprehended and is unknowable apart from self-revelation. This standard definition is referred to as a “common retort” by Dan, which makes him seem less credible. It’s not a retort; it’s a standard definition in Christian theology which has been maintained across many cultures and centuries.

If he can demonstrate a contradiction in the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility (or the definition of God), then he should simply do so—rather than equivocating and obfuscating. When one desires to refute another’s position, it would behoove him to be familiar with the standard definitions associated with that position before attempting refutation. A bare familiarity with some standard work in systematic theology would prevent these sorts of unfortunate errors. Before one can effectively “undermine Christianity” one must correctly understand Christianity.

Actual vs. potential infinite
Dan also seems to be unfamiliar with the common distinction (tracing its roots all the way back to Aristotle) between actual and potential infinity. This is evidenced by the scare quotes around “actual” in statements such as, “We’ll see later how Ben attempts to make the concept of infinite ‘actual’, and then tie ‘God’ to the ‘actual’ infinite, and why this doesn’t work.” He also asserts twice that “infinite means without limits,” which is simply a reference to potential infinity (e.g. limits in calculus). Actual infinity is a set with infinite members, such as the set of all positive integers {1, 2, 3, 4,…}. These are non-controversial, introductory matters in set theory which are important to even understanding, much less refuting, the Transcendental Argument for God from Mathematics (TAG-M).

Dan has also made a couple of unsubstantiated assertions about what he calls “axioms,” e.g. Einstein’s work depends upon “deeper axioms” than a belief in space-time, I’m relying upon certain axioms to conclude that God exists, etc. I’m confused by Dan’s use of this term and I’d ask him to clarify what sense of “axiom” he is using, please. If he’s referring to, say, axioms in geometry used to derive theorems, then I fail to see the relevance of his statements. These axioms are simply stipulations used for mathematical modeling (as in Einstein’s physics). However, if he means the term in a more philosophical sense, as referring to necessary or self-evident truths, then he has again equivocated in explicitly referencing Einstein’s axioms in this other sense. Logic and math share many similarities but they are not mutually reducible to each other.

Using the term “axiom” to refer to a necessary truth is just a wishful assertion—“wishful” in the sense that most often when one refers to a philosophical principle as an “axiom” he is just attempting to convince an audience, without argument, that the principle is indeed a self-evident and necessary truth. This was a common conflation among the ancient Greeks, however, most today would grant that our math and philosophy have advanced some since then (terminologically, at the very least!). Unfortunately for Dan, in both math and philosophy you sometimes need to substantiate your axioms with proofs and arguments, respectively.

Ipse dixitism
Dan is quite fond of alleging his opponents have committed various logical fallacies. However, the mere allegation of fallacious reasoning is insufficient to establish that a fallacy has actually been committed. Ironically, merely asserting something is the case without substantiation is an informal fallacy known as ipse dixit or the “bare assertion fallacy.” Dan will need to get his hands dirty demonstrating that I’ve committed the various fallacies he’s alleged, rather than the mere hand-waving and just-so assertions he’s given thus far. Dan tells us, on his bare authority, that numbers, propositions, persons, etc. are all just what he says they are. No need for argument, that’s just the way it is. God just doesn’t exist. QED.

Calling something a fallacy and demonstrating it is a fallacy are two very different things; and bare assertions don’t rise to the level of reasoned argumentation, no matter how often they are repeated or rephrased.

Everywhere Dan looks he seems to see somebody fallaciously reifying something. He sees it in the first three of my four arguments. I’m sure if he looks long enough, he could find it in the fourth as well. He may need to check his sources on this one, however. First, reification is not always fallacious; it is particularly common in rhetoric and literature, through the use of metaphor. Second, and more importantly, fallacious reification attributes concrete characteristics to abstractions. Referring to numbers as mental objects simply does not attribute any concrete characteristics to them at all. At the risk of stating the obvious, an abstraction is a mental object—an idea. If arguing that a number is an idea commits the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, then anything goes. Up so floating many bells down. I argued that numbers are mental objects; Dan says, no, they are metaphors. But what is a metaphor, if not (at least) a mental object as well? I’d suggest Dan may want to holster this fallacy until he figures out which end fires the bullets (*note the non-fallacious reification*).

Numbers and Logic
Dan says, “Numbers do not exist, as Ben asserts, independent of our brains that conceive of them.” So, if everything with a brain woke up dead tomorrow, how much would 2+2 equal? If you answered 4, according to Dan, you’d be wrong. All the numbers would have died with our brains. If you were riding in a car with me when all the brains in the world died, then there wouldn’t be two of us there afterward. We can project right now that there would be two of us in the car after the sudden global brain death (because we still have working brains), but after it happens there will not be two dead bodies in the car anymore. The dead bodies would be there and there would be two of them, but there couldn’t actually be two of them because there aren’t any numbers anymore. The clocks will keep running, but there won’t be any numbers to correspond with the passage of time. The billions of stars will still be there, but there won’t be billions of them anymore. Dan’s view is an absurd groupthink-meets-metaphysical-solipsism. Meanwhile, it remains painfully obvious that numbers and mathematics transcend our brains as demonstrated by the existence of actual infinite sets of mental objects, as I argued.

The same problem exists for Dan’s response to Anderson/Welty’s argument from logic. Does the principle of non-contradiction cease to apply the moment after global brain death? Did it apply during the timeline of evolution, before brains existed? Of course it did, but that means it transcends our brains. And if laws of logic are absolute mental entities, they must inhere in an absolute mind, i.e. the mind of God. Denying this principle produces the sorts of absurdities already discussed. Further, to say that the laws of logic are merely descriptive while repeatedly accusing me of committing logical fallacies is problematic. This is just Hume’s classic “is-ought problem;” but you can’t derive a prescription from a description without committing a category error.

Question-begging assertions
Many of Dan’s criticisms are simply question-begging. He believes one thing, and I believe something different. On the basis of the fact of this difference, Dan declares me wrong. He assumes his own position to be correct, without argument, then declares mine incorrect for not matching his. This is viciously circular.

An example: “Ben’s minimalist definition of personal, ‘rational, self-conscious entity’ is an equivocation. Ben wants the attribute of a person without the physical baggage that comes with it.” To assert that a “person” can only be physical begs the question against immaterialism. He’ll need to refute immaterialism on its own terms, rather than by direct appeal to physicalism. More examples could be adduced in this regard.

Subjectivism incompatible with realism
Dan has asserted that “numbers are metaphors,” “propositions are symbolic representations,” and “theories of truth… are simply our subjective understanding of what the word truth means.”
He has also stated that math “model[s] reality, but is not reality itself,” numbers and propositions “are symbolic representations of some aspect of reality,” that “we perceive some aspect of reality,” etc.

On the one hand, Dan wishes to say that all these things are subjective, reducible to our perceptions—to the point that if our collective consciousness dies, math and logic and truth die with it.

On the other hand he wishes to say that there is an objective reality which corresponds with those perceptions. (Unless he’s using the term “reality” as synonymous with “our perceptions,” which would make his statements consistent with subjectivism, but uselessly tautological.)

But one can’t be a subjectivist-realist any more than he can be an atheist-polytheist. So how does Dan propose to bridge the gap between subject and object? I’ll predict that whatever answer he proposes will be self-refuting apart from acknowledging the role of divine self-revelation in epistemology.

A Minor Point of Clarification
In Dan’s closing statement he quotes Dr. James Anderson’s article “Calvinism and the First Sin.” I think Dan has misunderstood James, for when he states “sin is intrinsically irrational” James means that the act of disobeying God (i.e. sinning) is irrational, not that the Christian doctrine of sin per se is irrational. I think if Dan re-reads this section of the paper he’ll see his mistake.

…speaking of sin
Finally, I’ll point out that these intellectual discussions connect directly with flesh-and-bone in that, if my position is correct then Dan’s position is not merely mistaken, it is sinful. One of the noetic effects of sin is turning rational creatures made in God’s image into irrational God-haters. I ask Dan to repent of using the intellect which God has given him in order to argue against the truth, and I ask him to become a thinker free from sin, embracing reason in Jesus Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 2:3)

I look forward to reading Dan’s next response, assuming no global brain death occurs before then.

Does God Exist? A Debate: (2) Atheist Opening Statement, Dan Courtney

My name is Dan Courtney, and I’m the President of the Freethinkers of Upstate New York. I live near Rochester, NY with my wife, and I’ve been active in the atheist community for several years. I’ll be defending the position that belief in the Christian conception of God is not reasonable.
(Dan blogs at http://underminingchristianity.blogspot.com/)

I would like to thank Ben for his opening statement, and I look forward to a… pardon the pun… spirited debate.

My primary task in this debate will be to expose the flaws in Ben’s arguments for belief in his Christian conception of God. However, it is important to note that I do not claim, nor is it necessary, to prove that the Christian God does not exist. As with Russell’s teapot, attempting to prove that something does not exist, even if it does not currently have a coherent definition, is a fool’s errand. Therefore demonstrating that Ben’s arguments for the Christian God are fatally flawed is sufficient to conclude that such beliefs are irrational. But I also hope to take this debate one step beyond the negation of Ben’s arguments and explain where Ben and I have common ground that is rationally supported.

To have any meaningful dialogue we must agree on the key terms, and here we are provided with a definition of “God” from the Westminster Confession. As Ben notes, Chapter II, paragraph I states:

“I. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

Of the many contradictions and equivocations apparent in this definition, “incomprehensible” strikes me as noteworthy. It would be a simple matter for me to agree with this part of the definition and claim victory. The common retort, however, is that ‘incomprehensible’ means that God is not understood exhaustively, because we are finite while God is infinite. But the assertion that God is infinite, which means without limits, is itself an unproven assertion. We’ll see later how Ben attempts to make the concept of infinite “actual”, and then tie “God” to the “actual” infinite, and why this doesn’t work.

Like any Presuppositionalist, Ben considers these characteristics of God to be foundational to any subsequent beliefs, “because they are the beliefs by which we evaluate evidence and formulate arguments.” And he suggests that proving the existence of God would be as perplexing as proving the existence of space and time. Not to get too technical, but Einstein showed that space and time are two sides of the same coin, and should more properly be referred as space-time. Subsequent experiments have shown that we can actually twist and measure space-time. Neither Einstein’s work, nor the experiments, required accepting space and time, a priori, as Ben suggests, and instead rely upon deeper axioms. Axioms, by the way, that Ben also relies upon to conclude that God exists.

Ben lays out four arguments, two positive arguments for God, and two arguments against atheism. I’ll respond to each one in turn.

1. Transcendental argument for God from mathematics.
Ben’s argument is that mathematics is, “a system of internal relationships…all the relations must be consistent in order for any of them to be consistent.” He then concludes that, “in a system of internal relations, the infinite must be actual rather than potential.”
First I should note that mathematics is a means for humans to model reality, but it is not reality itself. Mathematics is a conceptual description of reality that allows us to manipulate our model in an effort to make predictions about reality. In that sense mathematics is a useful tool. We should also note that infinite means without limits. The conclusion that, in mathematics, infinite must be ‘actual’ simply means that we cannot place a limit on the relationships. It does not mean, as Ben implies, that the concept of infinite is a real, existent entity.

The problem is compounded when numbers are referred to as “mental objects”, and he concludes that “if numbers are mental objects which are members of an actual infinite set, this requires the existence of an infinite mind where they inhere—the mind of an eternal, omniscient God.”

Ben is committing the reification fallacy by referring to numbers as objects. Numbers are metaphors; symbolic representations of some aspect of reality. Numbers are conceptual representations of relationships between aspects of reality. Numbers do not exist, as Ben asserts, independent of our brains that conceive of them.

2. Anderson and Welty’s argument for God from logic
Ben quotes verbatim from The Lord of Non-Contradiction by Dr. James Anderson and Greg Welty. This is interesting because I recently turned down the option for “some kind of written exchange” with Dr. Anderson, and instead I’m working on a video critiquing one of his papers. Nonetheless, this argument appears to be a mix between St. Anselm’s ontological argument, and the transcendental argument.

Again, we start off with a reification fallacy when they write, “Propositions are real entities.” Like numbers, propositions are symbolic representations of some aspect of reality, and do not ‘exist’ independent of the brain that is conceiving them. The error manifests itself when they state that the laws of logic (as propositions/thoughts), “must exist in every possible world.” Again, we perceive some aspect of reality, and then organize these perceptions in order to form the thoughts, which are then expressed as propositions. The propositions, collectively called the laws of logic, simply represent some aspect of reality, and are not reality itself.
From this flawed premise, Anderson/Welty go on to butcher the meaning of ‘person’ by asserting that “there must be a necessarily existent person”, and that this person must be, “spiritual in nature”.

3. Argument against ultimate non-personality.
I can see three logical fallacies that are immediately apparent in this argument. First, we’re told that, “Reality is ultimately personal or non-personal.” In this sense, ‘personal’ means having the characteristics of a person. This is the reification fallacy again, in which the conceptual notion of reality (existence), is presented in terms of a physical object (a person). Second, Ben’s minimalist definition of personal, “rational, self-conscious entity” is an equivocation. Ben wants the attribute of a person without the physical baggage that comes with it. But even the term ‘entity’ betrays the first premise because an entity has distinct existence, while reality is existence in its totality. So it would be a contradiction for something to be part of the whole, and the whole, at the same time and in the same manner. The third fallacy is one of composition. We’re told that, “problems arise in explaining how personality emerges from non-personality”, and it is implied that personality cannot emerge from non-personality. Since personality is simply the combination of qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character, then it is simply a label we apply to a combination of qualities. Rivers, for example, do not need to emerge from other rivers, but they are simply a label we use to describe water under specific circumstances.

4. Argument against atheism as self-refuting.
To summarize this argument, a theory of truth requires a mind, and atheists believe there was a time in the past when there were no minds. Ben then asks, “would it be true to say of that time that no minds existed then?” I accept Ben’s premise, so answering his question in the affirmative is simply a tautology. But Ben concludes that “If the answer is “yes,” then how can something that was not true at that time become true now with reference to then?” Ben is simply confusing a “theory of truth” with truth itself. Theories of truth, such as correspondence theory, are simply our subjective understanding of what the word truth means and how it relates to reality. In correspondence theory, truth relates to whether a proposition corresponds with reality. Without a mind to form a proposition, the idea of truth, in this context, is meaningless. And today, with minds available to form propositions about the past, the truthfulness of the proposition (made in the present) is independent of whether there was a mind (in the past) to assess its correspondence to reality.

I’ll close my opening statement with a comment about the goal of a debate. Aside from having each side’s positions challenged, and hopefully growing in understanding from the experience, a debate is about demonstrating the rationality of your view, and the irrationality of your opponent’s view. That’s why when I read the conclusion of a paper of Dr. James Anderson (noted above) I was so stunned. In his paper, Calvinism and the First Sin, Dr. Anderson concludes, “I therefore find myself concurring with those Reformed Theologians who concede that sin is intrinsically irrational and the entrance of human sin into the world is in many respects, shrouded in mystery.” Dr. Anderson concedes, by his own reasoning, that a core tenet of his faith is “intrinsically irrational”, yet he still holds to belief in that tenet. I hope that as I show that Ben’s arguments are equally irrational, that he, and those that agree with him, will have the courage to modify their beliefs.

Does God Exist? A Debate: (1) Christian Opening Statement, B.C. Askins

“God exists” is an intuitive, basic belief of mine. (To be clear, by the term “God” I do not mean a metaphor for the nature of reality—rather, I am referring to the classical Christian conception of God drawn from the Old and New Testaments. See the Westminster Confession of Faith Ch. 2 for a condensed statement on the subject.) Unfortunately, when confronted with opposition to some of our most basic intuitive beliefs, it is often difficult to provide evidence or arguments in favor of those beliefs—because they are the beliefs by which we evaluate evidence and formulate arguments. If I challenge you to prove the existence of your right hand, you might wave it in my face or touch me with it. But if I ask you to prove that space and time exist, you might just scratch your head in confusion. The existence of space and time is something which we often assume for the purpose of providing evidence or argumentation regarding other subjects. It can be difficult to explain and defend one’s intuitions inferentially. How would you respond to someone who stands before you, using the air she is breathing to deny the existence of both air and her own voice?

By analogy, arguing for the existence of the Creator of space and time is no less difficult than defending one’s belief in space and time itself, since—if God exists—his existence is even more foundational than the existence of his creation. So, on the question of the existence of God, either atheists are radically self-deceived or theists are. Either I believe in an “imaginary friend in the sky” or atheists, like Mr. Courtney, are assuming the existence of God in order to argue against the existence of God. One of us is colossally wrong.

There are many ways that people have responded to skepticism regarding a belief in God. I’ll provide four brief arguments in this regard. The first two will be arguments for the existence of God; the second pair will be arguments against atheism. These arguments aren’t original to me, though I will take responsibility for their particular presentation in this debate. I am indebted to the writings of Cornelius Van Til, Alvin Plantinga, Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, Gordon Clark, Steve Hays, John Byl, David Byron, James Anderson, and Greg Welty (among others). I’m also grateful for Mr. Courtney’s patience during our exchange and willingness to debate someone with no experience in formal debate.

Transcendental argument for God from mathematics
Hermann Weyl famously defined mathematics as “the science of the infinite.” Set Theory combined with Predicate Calculus provides the foundations of mathematics. The ultimate goal is to describe the structure of the mathematical universe, emphasizing systems of internal consistency and proof. Certain equations imply other equations, membership in one set implies membership in others, addition implies subtraction, etc. In a system with internal relationships, such as the number 4’s relation to 2, all of the relations must be consistent in order for any of them to be consistent. 2+2=4 because 1+1=2 and 4-2=2, etc. So, in a system of infinite internal relations, the infinite must be actual rather than potential.

Mathematical objects also appear to be inherently mental objects. What else could they be? 2+2 doesn’t transform into 4. 2,000,000 doesn’t have any more mass than 2. The existence of a number is independent of the existence of a particular instantiation of its properties, i.e. if I erase the symbol “9” from a chalkboard or smash two apples into sauce I haven’t affected the number 9 at all. But if numbers are mental objects which are members of an actual infinite set, this requires the existence of an infinite mind where they inhere—the mind of an eternal, omniscient God. 2+2=4 only if God exists.

Anderson and Welty’s argument for God from logic
“The laws of logic are necessary truths about truths; they are necessarily true propositions. Propositions are real entities, but cannot be physical entities; they are essentially thoughts.
So the laws of logic are necessarily true thoughts. Since they are true in every possible world, they must exist in every possible world. But if there are necessarily existent thoughts, there must be a necessarily existent mind; and if there is a necessarily existent mind, there must be a necessarily existent person. A necessarily existent person must be spiritual in nature, because no physical entity exists necessarily. Thus, if there are laws of logic, there must also be a necessarily existent, personal, spiritual being. The laws of logic imply the existence of God.” (James Anderson, Greg Welty. “The Lord of Non-Contradiction,” Philosophia Christi 13.2)

Argument against ultimate non-personality
According to the law of excluded middle, reality is ultimately either personal or non-personal. (A minimalist definition of “personal” would be a “rational, self-conscious entity.”) If reality is ultimately personal, then the existence of human persons is almost self-evidently explicable: persons come from other persons (via creation or reproduction). However, if one maintains reality is ultimately non-personal, as atheists do, then problems arise in explaining how personality emerges from non-personality, how rationality is produced by non-rationality. Note that there is not even a standard accepted theory of abiogenesis (despite many experiments conducted by highly rational persons), which is a much less difficult question than the origin of personality, given ultimate non-personality.

Argument against atheism as self-refuting
Mr. Courtney is about to make his opening statement. I predict there will be truth claims within that opening statement. Regardless of one’s theory of truth (correspondence vs. coherence vs. pragmatic, etc.), that theory will depend upon the existence of a mind, in which propositions correspond with external reality or cohere with other true propositions or are most expedient, etc. However, if we combine atheism with standard scientific theories on the evolution of life, there was a time when no minds existed—but would it be true to say of that time that no minds existed then? Answering “no” is plainly self-contradictory. If the answer is “yes,” then how can something that was not true at that time become true now with reference to then? Either answer is self-refuting. Only if we grant a divine mind, where this truth may inhere, can one even predicate that there was a time when no human minds existed.

I look forward to reading Mr. Courtney’s opening statement.

A Sea of Symbolism

In Scripture, the sea often symbolizes chaos. This doesn’t mean God was writing a book and he needed a good analogy, so he picked the sea. It means he created the sea as He did so that when Jesus walks on the water it’s written down as a deeply symbolic historical record of Christ treading down chaos and evil, ruling over every aspect of his creation.

Much contemporary scholarship misses this point; conservatives defend a mere history and liberals propound a mere symbolism. Neither gives God the proper glory as the author of Scripture and history, who fills the pages of both with overflowing significance.

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