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.