Enter the zingers

(Text: “Debating an Atheist — Round Three“, Soli Deo Gloria, July 8, 2012)

By his third post, Pastor Stephen Feinstein has grown tired of waiting for Russell Glasser to say the lines he’s supposed to say, according to the mental script Paster Feinstein wants the discussion to follow, and has begun introducing the atheist’s scripted arguments himself. How else can he deliver his zingers and make it look like Christianity is more rational than atheism? His first zinger is “Yes, I’m using circular reasoning, but so are you, and my circular reasoning is more valid than yours.”

I find it entirely ironic that you accuse me of circular reasoning, when you reason as follows: 1) The world is real. How do I know? Well, I assume it is real. 2) We learn through sense experience. How do I know? Well, through sense experience of course! 3) Logic is valid. How do I know? Well, through logic of course…

You are tacitly injecting the notion that a random-chance universe can account for intelligibility. Rather than acknowledging this, you are putting up smoke and mirrors claiming that you have no burden of proof, but instead you get to happily assume your assumptions with narrow circularity, and if I am going to debate you, I then have to play by your rules and assume that these agreed assumptions exist without any preconditions. I am sorry, but that is poor logic and it creates a dishonest debate.

Yes, after rewriting Russell’s side of the conversation to follow a canned script instead of the things Russell was actually saying, and after injecting his own assumption that an atheistic universe would be “random chance,” he actually accuses Russell of creating a dishonest debate.

Pastor Feinstein has not, as yet, defined for us how he measures the width of someone’s circular reasoning, so it’s not clear how even the strawman version of atheistic reasoning has more “narrow circularity” than his own. It could be that “narrow circularity” is just the believer’s way of saying “I know you are, but what am I?” as a comeback to people who notice his circular reasoning.

As we saw last week, though, there is no fallacy involved in observing that logic validates itself. Logic, as an aspect of necessary being, is not contingent upon anything else for its existence and meaning, which means no other agency can exist by which we could validate the validity of logic. In this case, and only in this case, self-referential validation is valid and meaningful.

In the interests of honest debate, therefore, Pastor Feinstein ought to acknowledge that Russell’s argument, even when reduced to the strawman from Pastor Feinstein’s script, makes no assumptions beyond that which must necessarily be true. “Narrow” circularity, properly understood, is a good thing, because there’s only one circumstance where a self-validating argument is legitimate. By limiting self-validation to the necessary nature of logic itself, the atheistic argument avoids the fallacies inherent in trying to apply circular reasoning to other, more contingent arguments.

This is where Pastor Feinstein’s attempted zinger backfires, because by this point he has essentially agreed that his argument is circular in ways that go beyond “narrow” reliance on the self-validating nature of logic itself. Any rug he tries to pull out from under Russell’s feet is only going to come out from under his own. That’s not going to stop him from putting on his best game face, though

Russell, there is no point playing games over these issues, so please answer me honestly. Do you or don’t you have assumptions that depend on presuppositions? And if your presuppositions can be shown to be impossible, then does not your entire position come tumbling down? The answer is yes, whether you like it or not.

The difference between Russell’s position and Pastor Feinstein’s is that, as a skeptic, Russell makes provisional assumptions that he then validates and refines through interaction with the real world. Due to the self-consistent nature of reality, this process of assumption, testing, and refinement creates a feedback loop by which any initial inaccuracies can be corrected. Meanwhile, Pastor Feinstein is, understandably, thinking in terms of dogmatic presuppositions, which are non-provisional and non-correctable and which, if they turn out to be wrong, cause the believer’s whole position to come tumbling down.

It’s telling that Pastor Feinstein assumes Russell’s provisional assumptions and presuppositions are subject to the same brittle fragility as his own dogmatic presuppositions. But the two are very different things. Russell is making only those presuppositions which must necessarily be true: that reality exists, and that it is, by nature, ordered, reasonable, and intelligible. Thus, the qualities of order, logic, and intelligibility derive, as they must, from the nature of reality itself. Pastor Feinstein is simply not going to be able to show that Russell’s presuppositions of order and reason in reality are impossible.

Pastor Feinstein’s presupposition, by contrast, is arbitrary, as is all superstition. We see order and logic and intelligibility in the universe, and we don’t immediately see where that comes from, so we’ll just arbitrarily pick some kind of magical being or power and give it the credit for having created order and logic and intelligibility. Pastor Feinstein happens to pick the Christian Trinity (even though the Trinity is not, in fact, a logically coherent concept), but Russell, by way of illustration, proposes a magical tiara instead.

Are we at an impasse here?  I could say something almost identical and it would still be just as valid as your frame.  There exists a magical tiara, and it is because of this tiara that the laws of logic exist.  Problem solved: I’ve accounted for logic in just as rigorous a way as you have, at least so far.

Russell’s point is to highlight the fact that, in the debate as it has been presented thus far, Pastor Feinstein has only made superstitious attributions to God: he has arbitrarily claimed that God is the only possible source for reason and intelligibility in the universe, without offering any justification for why this should be so. Russell’s counter-example makes an equally-arbitrary and equally-magical attribution that gives a magic tiara credit instead. Why not? One superstition is as valid as another. But Pastor Feinstein seems to miss the point, or at least he fails to address it.

I must say that your “magical tiara” example proves that you have not understood the nature of the Christian presuppositional argument. A magical tiara is not a precondition of any of our assumptions, but God, as defined biblically, is the total precondition of each of our assumptions.

Obviously, Russell wasn’t saying that the Christian argument is based on presupposing magical tiaras. But the point is, it could be. If you’re going to say “I don’t have to justify my claim because it is a presupposition,” then one presupposition is as valid as another. Why not assume a magic tiara? Or a unicorn? Or a unicorn wearing a magic tiara? All you need to make a superstitious argument is to imagine some kind of magical being or power to attribute things too, and thus far Pastor Feinstein has failed to offer any more justification for his presuppositions than a simple appeal to superstition.

Moving on, we come to what I think is supposed to be Zinger #2: the “problem” of causality.

With that said, I will get into some specific arguments against your position. I told you in my first post that atheism has four big problems. These problems are related to the necessary preconditions of intelligibility. I will deal with at least one of them in this response…

All science rests upon the precondition of the uniformity of nature. Inductive inference takes something that we experienced in the past and then projects it into the future. If you step on a nail and it causes pain today, you assume the same thing would happen at anytime in the future if you stepped on it again.

So far so good. What he calls “the uniformity of nature” is really just as aspect of the necessarily-true condition that reality is consistent with itself, with or without any deities. An atheistic universe, therefore, would supply the preconditions needed in order for science to work. So how is this a problem for atheism, precisely?

If you are serious about this debate, then you should agree with everything that was stated in the previous paragraph. I will soon explain why this is a problem for you.

Oy, again with the promises? For somebody with such allegedly killer arguments, he certainly is shy about letting any of them get out where the rest of us can see them! Let’s read on. Hmm, not in the longish paragraph that starts with the lines above. Not in the next one either… Oh, here we go. Get ready for the zinger, folks.

So here is my question to you.  Can you, the materialistic atheist, from your own worldview/presuppositions assume the uniformity of nature to be true? Russell, you cannot dismiss this question as being irrelevant. It is totally relevant. Your fundamental assumption is that the universe is governed by random chance. How in the world can randomness account for uniformity? They are antonyms!

That’s it? The killer argument is just that, if you make the Christian assumption that a universe without God would be “random” in some sense that involved the laws of nature not being consistent, then the laws of nature would not be consistent? This is like going to see a man wrestle a tiger, and finding a guy punching a piece of paper with the word “TIGER” scrawled across it. In crayon.

Notice the “dilemma” he proposes here. “Can you, the materialistic atheist…assume the uniformity of nature to be true?” It’s a trick question, because we’re not just assuming what he calls “the uniformity of nature,” we’re actually verifying it, in two ways, both of which Pastor Feinstein agrees are valid. The first way is by observation: nobody has a list of what the laws of nature are, we simply infer them based on what we observe in nature. But the second way is by reason: it is necessarily true that reality is consistent with itself. When we observe the laws of nature, we are observing some of the many ways that reality is self-consistent. But whether we call it uniformity or consistency, it is the manifestation of a property that must necessarily be a property of reality itself, with or without any gods.

In other words, it’s not a question of atheists assuming that reality is consistent with itself. The order, “uniformity” and self-consistency of reality are things that must necessarily be true, whether or not any gods exist. There is nothing here to cause the atheist any inconvenience whatsoever. The only reason Pastor Feinstein thinks there’s a conflict is because he has chosen to assume that all order and intelligibility in the universe come from God alone, and therefore he is arbitrarily defining “atheistic universe” as meaning one in which all order and intelligibility are absent. This is a purely contrived and manufactured “dilemma” that requires Christian presuppositions in order to even declare what the problem is supposed to be!

We’ll skip over most of Pastor Feinstein’s subsequent guess-I-showed-you gloating to have a look at one last argument for this week:

Let’s take your presupposition of random chance mixed with 14 billion years of time, and see if it accounts for uniformity, predication, causality, etc. It can’t because by the very definition of random, we can’t have a real world that is predictable. So you either A) have to assume the universe isn’t random, or B) you have to admit that your position is irrational, but you are committed to it anyway.

Notice how he has things completely backwards. The self-consistency of reality is an inherent property of reality itself, and not something that we would expect to see emerging over the course of the universe’s 14 billion year history. So why is he even looking for it there? My guess is that he really knows better than that, but he reeeeeeally wants to get some young-earth creationist zingers into the argument too.

But he makes the same mistake here that he does above, assuming that all order and predictability come only from God, and therefore a godless universe would have to be “random” in some sense that involved the complete absence of order and predictability. In essence his in-your-face “takedown” of atheistic materialism boils down to being nothing more than a tendentious failure/refusal to understand what science and materialism are really saying about the undirected, non-superstitious order we see in the real world. No doubt Pastor Feinstein’s zingers play really well among people who embrace the same ignorant notions as he does, but it’s hardly the dramatic overthrow of atheism he’s been billing it as.

17 Responses to “Enter the zingers”

  1. Skepticali Says:

    A super-slo-mo train wreck…
    Or as the prez might say “Please proceed, Pastor”

  2. ambidexter143 Says:

    It’s the Christians’ insistence on miracles which introduce randomness into the universe. The universe chugs along, operating according to its self-consistent rules, and then the Christian posits that Jesus turns water into wine or resurrects from the dead, acts contrary to the rules. Miracles are one-off exceptions to the rules and are therefore random in nature.

  3. Helmi Says:

    I don’t understand how Feinstein really doesn’t understand the difference between undeniable axiomatic foundations and random unsupported assumptions:

    1) Logic is necessarily true, simply put, because we can’t even discuss whether logic is true unless we accept that logic is true. Have fun making an argument against logic without using logic. How will it go? “Quack quack, I’m a duck, refrigerator”?

    2) Other claims (Iraq really had WMDs, Bigfoot exists, magical space leprechauns live in my ears, etc) are NOT necessarily true and are not justified to assume as true.

    The fact that (1) is known to be true and necessary for all parties to assume to be true is NOT justification for assuming any example of (2) to be true. And if you claim that the magical space leprechauns that live in your ears invented logic, it changes nothing – I can still accept logic without believing in the leprechauns.

  4. Pacal Says:

    “Your fundamental assumption is that the universe is governed by random chance. How in the world can randomness account for uniformity? They are antonyms!”

    and

    “Let’s take your presupposition of random chance mixed with 14 billion years of time, and see if it accounts for uniformity, predication, causality, etc. It can’t because by the very definition of random, we can’t have a real world that is predictable. So you either A) have to assume the universe isn’t random, or B) you have to admit that your position is irrational, but you are committed to it anyway.”

    What collection of strawmen! I can only conclude that the Pastor is deliberately arguing in bad faith. He assumes i.e, fantasizes, that atheism requires a belief that the universe in governed by random chance and then puts words in Russell’s mouth which he has never said. This is positively slimy.

  5. Alex SL Says:

    This intelligibility / orderliness of the universe argument is one that comes from theists but also, interestingly, in a slightly modified form from philosophers who have heard of the problem of induction and conclude either that science is unjustified (as opposed to philosophy, of course) or that we cannot know anything at all. Three thoughts:

    First, I have never understood how even to visualize a universe in which inductive reasoning does not work, i.e. one without any regularities or rules whatsoever. How would complete chaos even look like? It is literally inconceivable.

    Second, it should be perfectly clear that a universe without orderliness would not be conductive to sentient beings. For the philosophers argument, this should show that induction must necessarily work in any universe where somebody exists who can think about the issue; for the theist’s argument, I would add that a god could not exist in a rule-less universe either, although of course the theist would mentally place god outside of the universe (as you discussed earlier) despite the fact that it includes everything that exists by definition.

    Third, the problem of induction is as self-defeating as solipsism, postmodernism or strict positivism, because to even be able to formulate it you have to rely on a large amount of knowledge that you can only have picked up through inductive reasoning. This problem applies in full force to Feinstein’s argument about intelligibility.

  6. David Evans Says:

    ‘What he calls “the uniformity of nature” is really just as aspect of the necessarily-true condition that reality is consistent with itself,’

    I disagree. Any coherently described sequence of events is consistent with itself. If I discover that I can fly by flapping my arms, turn lead into gold by touching it, control the weather by thought alone, and generally have the powers of various superheroes, that will completely violate the uniformity of nature. But none of it is inconsistent with itself.

    You may say that there must be some causal explanation for my new powers, so that the uniformity of nature can be restated in a new form. But that’s not a logical necessity. It might “just happen”.

    • 2-D Man Says:

      I disagree. Any coherently described sequence of events is consistent with itself. If I … have the powers of various superheroes, that will completely violate the uniformity of nature.

      No. It won’t. The uniformity of nature would still be valid and real. The hypothetical situation would merely reveal that our understanding of the nature of that uniformity was flawed.

      • David Evans Says:

        “No. It won’t. The uniformity of nature would still be valid and real.”

        In that case, is there any course of events which would lead you to deny the uniformity of nature? If not, the uniformity of nature is unfalsifiable and therefore empty.

      • Deacon Duncan Says:

        At the risk of quibbling over semantics, reality itself cannot be falsifiable in any meaningful way, because any meaningful falsification of reality itself would boil down to claiming that True = False. Our perceptions of reality can and must be falsifiable, but the reality itself won’t be.

    • Naked Bunny with a Whip Says:

      I wonder how you’re going to reconcile the world around us with one in which miracles can “just happen” in a completely spontaneous, discontinuous manner. After all, it’s easy to disagree with an argument when you can just make up fictional scenarios where the argument fails, but your disagreement with the argument is quite weak when it also requires you to disagree with what actually happens in reality.

      • David Evans Says:

        But we don’t know what happens in reality. At best we know what has happened up till now, and in practice only a small subset of that. That is why I don’t like the use of “reality must be consistent with itself” as an argument for substantive conclusions.

        Yes, my scenario was fictional. So were stories of moon landings before 1969. But it would have been unwise to reject the possibility of moon landings as not consistent with reality.

      • phasespace Says:

        David,

        I think the key thing to remember is that we are talking about drawing provisional conclusions about reality. Reality is consistent with itself, but our inferences are drawn from a less than comprehensive view of it.

        Think of it this way. Reality is a Thing. It has a whole bunch of different properties, some of them we understand, some of them we don’t, but anything that happens in reality, is necessarily a part of reality and must be consistent with it (that’s the law of identity at work). This is not the same as saying that what happens must always be consistent with our inferences about reality.

        Given the conception of reality of the ancient Greeks, would it have been unwise to reject the possibility of moon landings? I would say not, but today, it is obviously so. Our understanding of the properties of reality have changed substantially, but reality hasn’t changed at all in that time.

        As for your last question to 2-D man: I sort of agree with you that talking about the “uniformity” of nature can be potentially problematic. The laws of the universe need not be uniform. They might even evolve to some extent. I, personally, was involved one such study that looked for such changes in what is known as the “fine structure constant” in quantum mechanics. Our finding: The laws of the universe are uniform to the level of our measurement abilities. But even if we had detected some non-uniformity, would that have implied that reality is somehow inconsistent with itself? Does it even make sense to say such a thing? Or would it be better to conclude from such a finding that reality has properties that we just don’t understand?

      • Naked Bunny with a Whip Says:

        We’re not omniscient, therefore we can’t draw conclusions about what we do see? You must have difficulty deciding anything.

        Yes, my scenario was fictional. So were stories of moon landings before 1969.

        False equivalence. Moon landings don’t require ongoing suspensions of physical law following a literal miracle. In fact, moon landings became possible through the causal explanations derived from observations of a uniform, self-consistent reality that you want to throw out for rhetorical convenience.

        You may not like Duncan’s arguments, but at least he doesn’t fabricate incoherent fantasies to support his position. Saying “nuh uh” isn’t an argument, much less a refutation, and frankly, I haven’t felt like playing grade-school “let’s pretend” for a long, long time.

    • Nick Gotts Says:

      I agree with David Evans here. The order and uniformity of nature, or reality, is a high-level hypothesis that might turn out to be false. It is indeed an assumption we need in order to conclude that science will continue to work; but it is not a necessary truth. The contrast made between provisional assumptions/preconditions and dogmatic ones is right, but fails if you start insisting that any of your assumptions or preconditions are beyond the possibility of revision. It’s quite consistent to put nothing whatever beyond this possibility – even the principle that nothing should be placed beyond the possibility of revision.

      • Deacon Duncan Says:

        I think it’s still worthwhile observing that, in the absence of a self-consistent reality, it becomes impossible to revise our understanding in any way that reliably brings us closer to real-world truth. There are certain fundamental relationships, like the laws of identity, non-contradiction, and cause-and-effect, that are needed in order for knowledge and meaning themselves to exist. If by “nature” we mean some subset of reality that may behave in ways that escape our ability to acquire the observations we need to fully understand it, then yes, our understanding of what we perceive as “natural order” is necessarily provisional and subject to refinement. But at some level there’s an underlying necessary order without which the distinction between true/real and false/non-existent becomes moot.

    • Deacon Duncan Says:

      Notice, though, that I did not say that only reality can be consistent with itself. Self-consistency is a necessary quality which reality must possess, however self-consistency by itself is not sufficient to determine that something is real.

  7. Owlmirror Says:

    Any coherently described sequence of events is consistent with itself. If I discover that I can fly by flapping my arms, turn lead into gold by touching it, control the weather by thought alone, and generally have the powers of various superheroes, that will completely violate the uniformity of nature.

    Actually, it will demonstrate that you are God/the solipsist. And/or that you’re probably trapped in a simulation, or a lucid dream.

    See if you can change light levels.

    Yes, my scenario was fictional. So were stories of moon landings before 1969. But it would have been unwise to reject the possibility of moon landings as not consistent with reality.

    This is a false equivalence. Moon landings were always physically possible, and required the proper engineering.

    What you described above involves violations of mass/energy conservation and causality, and is therefore not physically possible.

    You might argue that the laws of physics can magically change by magic, because you say so, but that is nowhere near ths same as saying that humans developed tools (consistent with the rules of physics) that allowed them to travel to the moon, in a manner consistent with the rules of physics.


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