Does God Exist? A Debate (4): Initial Atheist Rebuttal, Dan Courtney
(Dan Courtney is the President of the Freethinkers of Upstate New York. He lives near Rochester, NY with his wife, and has been active in the atheist community for several years. Dan blogs at http://underminingchristianity.blogspot.com/)
In my opening statement I pointed out that the burden of proof for the existence of the Christian conception of God falls squarely on the person making the positive claim. Not only is it not necessary, but it is not possible to prove that such a God does not exist. Ben refers to this position as “weak atheism”, and implies that my position is consequently weak. I prefer to let the reader decide which of us is in the stronger position.
In the famous “Russell’s teapot”, the philosopher Bertrand Russell points out that it is not possible to disprove the existence of a teapot orbiting between the Earth and Mars, but that accepting the idea without evidence is not rational. In this case the teapot is at least a coherent concept. But with Ben’s definition of God, he fails to meet the standard of coherence, and thus we are not even in a position to consider what might constitute evidence.
More importantly, in response to my contention that his belief in the Christian God is irrational, Ben writes, “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.” It seems the point of any debate is to show that your opponent’s position is not rationally supported, while your own is rationally sound. If Ben is not interested in demonstrating the “mere rational status” of his beliefs, then it’s hard to imagine why I, or anyone else, would take his arguments seriously.
I also stated that according to the definition of God that Ben is using, “incomprehensible” stood out. It was stated that I was equivocating on this concept when I suggested that I could simply agree and claim victory. I don’t see how agreeing with this particular attribute is equivocating, but Ben provided a clarification of the term anyway; “divine incomprehensibility refers to the doctrine that God cannot be fully comprehended and is unknowable apart from self-revelation.” Assuming that Ben is not providing to us, through his argument, a “self-revelation”, then I am not dissuaded from agreeing with him that God is “unknowable”. Yet Christians of all stripes will continue to make arguments in an attempt to show that we can somehow know the unknowable. If, in Ben’s opinion, I’ve set the bar too low in this debate, then certainly he’s not only set the bar impossibly high, but he’s conceded that he cannot reach it.
If it isn’t obvious that “incomprehensible”, as a characteristic of the very thing that is being defined, doesn’t contradict the idea of a definition, then perhaps another example will help. Let’s take “forgiving iniquity” on one hand, and “who will by no means clear the guilty” on the other. If forgiveness is to mean anything, then clearly it must mean absolving one of guilt in some sense. Or how about “living’ and “immutable”? In what sense can a changeless entity said to be alive? If an entity does not grow, or learn, or age, or reproduce, then calling it ‘living’ becomes a meaningless assertion. And if it is thought that God is an immaterial mind such that growing, et al, doesn’t apply, then what about thoughts? What is the purpose of thoughts if not to conceptualize new relationships and thus increase knowledge? But new knowledge is a change in the state of one’s knowledge, which contradicts God’s supposed immutable nature, not to mention his supposed omniscience. As with virtually every proposed characteristic of God, the characteristic is immediately negated by a subsequent characteristic. The proposed definition of God is an impressive list of terms that says absolutely nothing.
As with other Transcendental Arguments for God (TAG), the TAG-M (mathematics) version relies on an intentional conflation of reality with the models used to represent reality. Whether it’s the use of mathematics or the traditional reference to the laws of logic, the error is the same. In Ben’s original argument he referred to the “mathematical universe”, and calls numbers “mental objects”. Mathematics is useful because it mirrors the consistency that we observe in reality. But we are not observing “mental objects” within some parallel “mathematical universe”. Numbers are not real, existent entities, but rather mental constructs used to model the behavior we observe in reality. The use of the term “object” is an equivocation designed to blur the distinction between an abstract concept and the reality to which it refers. Once the distinction is realized, the TAG (and TAG-M) argument collapses.
I was also accused of failing to substantiate my claim of reification on Ben’s part. As Ben points out, reification is the false assigning of concreteness to an abstraction. But this is exactly the point when Ben calls numbers mental objects. Ben wishes to confer independent existence (real, existent entities) to mental abstractions. In this sense, concepts are granted existence status equivalent to physical objects, and the only remaining question is in what kind of mind to store them. This is reification in broad daylight.
To see how Ben continues to confuse the abstract from the real, consider this question he poses in his first response; “If everything with a brain woke up dead tomorrow, how much would 2+2 equal?” The key here is that Ben is asking the question today, when brains are available to ask and answer the question. He and the reader can conceive of the question and the numbers involved. However, if tomorrow there are no brains, neither the question, or the numbers involved, would be conceptualized. The answer is, as far as we know, that the underlying reality which we model with numbers will survive the death of all brains, but the mathematical model that we use to represent that reality will cease with our brains.
The Anderson-Welty argument (TAG meets Ontological), commits the same error as TAG-M. The arguments states that “propositions are real entities”, but then fails to distinguish propositions from the reality to which they refer. The error is only compounded by trying to bridge the flawed TAG argument, as the premise, to the ontological argument, which has problems of its own.
I’m happy to clarify my use of the term axiom in my opening statement. I am using the term to mean a necessary truth foundational to subsequent knowledge claims. So when I refer to Einstein’s use of axioms, I am not referring to the mathematical principles used to derive his equations, but the foundations of rational thought.
Ben accuses me of viciously circular question begging when I state that he “wants the attribute of a person without the physical baggage that comes with it.” Ben is claiming an immaterial transcendent mind as a person. I’m fine if he wants to define persons this way, but what are we going to call the 7 billion or so people here on earth? We are physical, temporal, imperfect animals. We are, in virtually every sense, not persons per Ben’s definition. If Ben did not want the association of God with the hominids formerly known as persons, then I apologize.
Under the heading of “Subjectivism incompatible with realism” Ben wonders out loud how I can be a “subjectivist-realist”, which he states is a contradiction. I think Ben would agree that there is an objective reality that we engage through our subjective experience. It’s not a contradiction to have an objective reality exist while only being able to experience it subjectively. The implied question here is “How can we justify our knowledge of objective reality?” Positing a “divine self-revelation” as some way of justifying the objective reality is the core of the Presuppositionalist argument, and one that I have debunked at some length in other writings. But suffice it to say that positing objective knowledge of an objective reality through the subjective experience of “self-revelation” doesn’t get you there.
On Ben’s point of clarification about Dr. Anderson’s paper Calvinism and the First Sin, he is mistaken in asserting that Dr. Anderson’s conclusion that “sin is intrinsically irrational” only referred to the act of sinning as being irrational. I’ve just finished a video review of Dr. Anderson’s paper (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5hrTkrd1JI&feature=share&list=UUiVyaC3sQ1puw3Qj9Ccx2xw – where you can also find a link to the full paper in the notes) and his conclusion is in the context of trying, and failing, to find a rational path to explain why Adam sinned without God being morally culpable. The conclusion “sin is intrinsically irrational” refers directly to Dr. Anderson’s inability to provide a rational explanation for the Calvinist doctrine of original sin, and not to any individual act of “sinning”.
On the subject of sin, I’m provided with a small sermon at the end of Ben’s response, in which he implies that I’m a sinful, “irrational God-hater”. No doubt I’m not completely rational in all my pursuits, but I’ve tried to use my best understanding of logic to construct a view of reality that is as accurate as possible. As we see with Dr. Anderson’s paper noted above, some do not constrain their views of reality to the same standard, and indeed even embrace the “mystery” of irrationality. If Ben’s embracing of “reason in Jesus Christ” means jettisoning reason when it conflicts with his religious doctrine, then I think I’ll stick with my “sinful” ways.