(Text: “Debating an Atheist — Round Three“, Soli Deo Gloria, July 8, 2012)
In Pastor Stephen Feinstein’s opinion, his debate with Russell Glasser was already over by the end of his (Feinstein’s) third post. According to the script he seems to be reading from, it is now time to take a few bows, acknowledge the cheers of the crowd, and review how easily he was able to knock down all the unbeliever’s futile arguments.
That’s the problem with scripts like this. They never take into account the possibility that the atheist might have more and better things to say that what you’ve got written down for them in the script. The script, after all, is designed to be effective at convincing believers, not atheists.
So let’s go back over Pastor Feinstein’s review and self-congratulations.
I would like to conclude here by responding to your conclusion. You asked me to offer some suppositions that we can both agree to. I did in my last response, but since you apparently missed them, I will repeat them here: 1) The world is real; 2) We learn from our sense experiences; 3) We learn from logic; 4) Reasonable standards are necessary; and 5) Bald assertion proves nothing. I made that clear then. I am asking you now to truly deal with the issues. Each of these assumptions has necessary preconditions. These need to be addressed in a non-arbitrary manner. They need to be applied to sound logic (a reasonable standard). It truly seems like you blew past some important statements in my response, which causes me to wonder if you really are seeking to have a discussion in good faith.
Notice point numbers 3, 4, and 5 here. Number 3, “We learn from logic,” was introduced by Pastor Feinstein himself (though of course Russell would make the same assertion, if asked). I would amend number 3 by saying “We learn from correct logic.” Misunderstood or misapplied logic doesn’t necessarily lead to knowledge, and can often be used to support fallacious reasoning and conclusions. We need reasonable standards (#4), and we need to make sure that our claims live up to those before accepting our conclusions as justified. As Pastor Feinstein reviews what he considers his great victory, we can take the opportunity to review all the ways his argument thus far has failed to live up to those reasonable standards. No doubt we’ll have the opportunity to review supposition #5 (“Bald assertion proves nothing”) as we go along.
Here are a few more suppositions that you should honestly agree to: 1) You and I are not neutral and we do not interpret evidence neutrally (otherwise you would not have said God has never been observed for I believe the evidence greatly shows that He has);
Isn’t that great? “If you interpreted the evidence neutrally, you would never have said something that contradicted my beliefs.” He doesn’t say “You and I disagree and therefore at least one of us must be biased.” No, you and I are not neutral, and therefore my beliefs are the standards against which neutrality must be judged. I wonder if he even knows he did that?
The thing about neutrality is that neutrality only exists with respect to something else. If I like broccoli better than spinach, and you don’t believe that anybody could like broccoli, we are both biased with respect to a conclusion like “Broccoli tastes good,” but I am neutral with respect to a conclusion like “Deacon Duncan likes broccoli better than spinach.”
When a believer asks us to agree that we are not neutral, therefore, we need to first ask, “Neutral with respect to what?” Neutrality requires some common standard which can be fairly applied to both sides, to discover whether or not a given perspective is accurately representing the facts. In the case of philosophical questions such as those raised by Pastor Feinstein, the objective standard is material reality itself (i.e. that which exists in and of itself, apart from how it might be perceived by any third party).
The point to remember regarding neutrality is that the way to achieve neutrality is by frequent reference to the standard. There are indeed many ways we can fail to practice neutrality and objectivity, but the existence of such failures is not an excuse to abandon the standard and just believe whatever you like. The neutral party is the party that does not trust their own perceptions and intuitions carte blanche, but rather continually tests and re-examines their conclusions in the light of objective, material reality. And people who take this approach to truth are called “skeptics.”
So, then, even if we suppose that no one is ever absolutely neutral, we can still be more neutral than otherwise as long as we commit ourselves to skeptical critical thinking. Pastor Feinstein’s first additional supposition ought to read, “You and I are not neutral, and therefore we need to take pains to be more skeptical.”
2) Epistemology is extremely relevant in addressing our positions and assumptions; and 3) If you really believe it is better not to believe something is true without good reasons then you need to also apply that standard to your own brand of atheism.
Here, at least, Pastor Feinstein is covering non-controversial ground. Yes, epistemology can be extremely relevant at times, especially when debating people who base key components of their philosophy on epistemological errors. And absolutely we need—and have—good reasons for rejecting Christian theology, some of which Pastor Feinstein is bringing to light by his own arguments, though not intentionally of course. So no real argument concerning points 2 and 3. And now for some congratulations.
To be honest, I don’t see me as losing anything in this debate so far. I believe in each post I have interacted with your comments much better than you interacted with mine. Furthermore, in my last response I refused to allow you to box me into any traps where I surrender the philosophical nature of this argument.
This is actually a reference to the beginning of Post 3, not his last response at Post 2, but I know what he means. Here’s his refusal to let Russell box him in.
You accused me of “trying to inject the irrelevant and unnecessary assumption” that God is the necessary precondition of intelligibility and you asserted that I am the only one trying inject such a thing. I often wonder if you apply your own standards to yourself. 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.
Pastor Feinstein assumes that intelligibility can only exist if there is a personal Creator God Who is the source of intelligibility, which means that any universe without such a God must be a universe that is random, chaotic, and unintelligible. That in turn means that Russell cannot prove that a random universe could be intelligible (as Pastor Feinstein sees things), and therefore it would be unfair to allow Russell to win this point simply by assuming that a random universe can be intelligible. It’s a fair rebuttal IF we assume that intelligibility can only exist where there is a personal Creator God Who is the source of intelligibility. So yes, once again, Pastor Feinstein is trying to inject his irrelevant and unnecessary assumption.
The reason why Russell has no burden of proof here is that we have no reason to believe that intelligibility would be any less likely without gods than with them. Pastor Feinstein might like to start from initial premises and argue his way to a conclusion that gods are necessary, but that does not mean that Russell is under any obligation to begin his own argument by assuming that Pastor Feinstein’s conclusion is true. It’s telling that Pastor Feinstein’s assumption of a chaotic and random universe is merely an extension of his assumption that a deity is the only possible source of order in the real world. He is, in effect, arguing that if we assume that God must necessarily exist, then atheism would have to be false. Um, well, yeah, but the problem is we have no reason to make that assumption.
In my last response I said that I was going to say, “Let’s start by assuming the Bible is true and let’s start by assuming atheism is true.” Well, I did this very thing in this present response concerning the necessary precondition of intelligibility for inductive inference. Assuming materialistic atheism was true and the universe was random, we could not have inductive inference. Assuming the Bible is true, we could and should have inductive inference.
What Pastor Feinstein is overlooking is the fact that he’s not comparing atheism and the Bible. At no point does he ever assume that atheism is true. What he’s really arguing is, “Assuming the Bible is right about materialistic atheism and the chaos that would result without God, we could not have inductive inference in a godless universe.” He’s not assuming atheism and then assuming the Bible, he’s just assuming the Bible twice, and then calling one alternative “the atheist assumption” even though it’s nothing at all like what atheists actually assume. His whole argument is just a verbose exercise in assuming one’s conclusion.
Furthermore, going beyond just the uniformity of nature, I spoke on contingent beings/objects and how in the atheistic universe we run into more transcendental problems. Yet, in the Biblical universe, we have the only philosophically proper necessary being who accounts for all contingent beings and objects.
Technically, what he has is not the “philosophically proper necessary being,” but only the superstitiously satisfying being, to Whom all things are arbitrarily attributed by believers. The problem is that this Being Himself is a contingent being, Whose own identity, nature, motives, and powers require a number of preconditions. That’s true for all non-pantheistic First Cause deities, but Trinitarian theology makes it even worse.
Finally, I brought up the one and many problem. In a random universe there is no unity of plurality, but instead everything would be unrelated to each other, disconnected, and in constant chaotic change. In the Christian universe, the God who is the original unity of plurality is the logical ground of the same derivative versions within the universe. I applied this to the attribute of personhood as well.
Once again, Pastor Feinstein “refutes” his opponent by assuming that Christian assumptions are true, and then showing how the atheist’s argument is inconsistent with them, and therefore the atheist is refuted. But there’s nothing in atheism that would require a godless universe to be chaotic or disjoint, and in fact the properties that give rise to order and meaning in material reality are qualities that would be required for any sane, non-chaotic, cohesive deity that wanted to exist. This fact means that order and meaning transcend even deity, and cannot depend on gods for their existence. Without gods, we would expect no less order and meaning in the universe, and in fact we’d find a great deal more, since there wouldn’t be any magical miracles to add unpredictability to the arrangement.
As for the one-and-many problem, there’s a fine line between Trinitarianism and polytheism, and Pastor Feinstein couldn’t help running across it numerous times in trying to make the universe somehow reflective of the way 3 Persons can be one God. Be a polytheist, or be a pantheist, if that’s what you really want, but if you value your Trinity you’d better not expose it to such comparisons or it will break.
So in each case of transcendental reasoning, I assumed both of our worldviews, and yet yours is absolutely hopeless when it comes to accounting for anything that we see and observe in the universe. So now I have given you the real argument you asked for.
That’s good to know, because that means we’ve covered essentially the whole presuppositional script. He had to invent an imaginary atheist to give him all the right cues so that he could display all the punch lines written in the script, but now he’s been through them all, and we can fairly say that we’ve seen his evidence, and found it very sadly wanting. It’s all superstition and fallacy, gilded with vanity and shored up with ignorance.
We’ll close with one final bow:
If you simply brush this off and say it is not a real argument, then fine. It shows me that you are not serious in this debate. It shows me that when atheists don’t get to set the rules in a way that is entirely in their favor, then they don’t want to play the game. It shows me that they don’t care that the very ability for them to offer arguments and evidence depends on the very preconditions that their presuppositions deny. It shows me that by virtue of you showing up to this debate, I have already won.