God and the PlayStation 3

(Text: “Debating an Atheist — Round Four“, Soli Deo Gloria, August 3, 2012)

In his response to Pastor Feinstein’s third post, Russell Glasser raises 5 very good points:

  1. Both Stephen and Russell should agree that some concepts are axiomatic, requiring no explanation.  For Stephen, the axiom is God.  For Russell, reality and logic are axiomatic, and God is a needless insertion.
  2. Stephen cannot assert that the existence of logic requires justification, unless he also attempts to offer a justification of God.  If he believes that this is unnecessary, then he should grant point (1).
  3. If the assumptions for all parties are arbitrary then Russell should win this debate, since Stephen failed to meet the burden of proof that he implied when stating that atheism is impossible.  If the belief in God is merely Stephen’s preferred assumption, then it is not necessary, and may be discarded due to Occam’s Razor.
  4. Stephen’s claim that a godless universe must be a random universe (where “random” is used to mean “inconsistent,” “illogical,” or “haphazard,” as opposed to merely “undirected”) requires justification, otherwise I reject the premise.
  5. Stephen should justify how a God would go about “creating” the laws of logic, without himself being subject to logic.

Sounds like Pastor Feinstein has his work cut out for him.

Before we get into the meat of Pastor Feinstein’s fourth post, I want to talk for a minute about materialism. A lot of believers (and even some non-believers) have some serious misconceptions about materialism, which in turn leads to some significant misunderstanding. The biggest misconception is that materialism means believing that only things made of atoms can be real. If you’re a believer, that’s a handy misconception to have, because it does two things for you: it allows you to imagine a spiritual realm not made of atoms, outside the boundaries of material reality, and it allows you to “disprove” materialism by pointing out some of the many things that are not made of atoms.

Obviously, materialists have always known about things that are real without being made of atoms. The distance between two atoms is not itself made of atoms. Time is not made of atoms. Even atoms are not made of atoms. Material reality is not “only those things which are made of atoms,” but rather “that which exists in and of itself, independently of any observer’s perceptions,” as distinct from subjective reality, which does depend on an observer’s perceptions for its existence and character. Material reality does not rule out the possibility of some higher dimension capable of interacting with our own, but it does require that any such dimension must exist in and of itself, independently of our (mis)perceptions, beliefs, feelings, or misconceptions about it. As such, if it is truly interconnected with our dimension, it must be scientifically verifiable as well as mystically “perceived.”

But that’s enough of that for now. Let’s look at Pastor Feinstein’s summary of the debate thus far.

Russell, … you are dodging the transcendental argument altogether and are attempting to smuggle your assumptions a priori into the argument without attempting to justify them. When I say “justify,” I simply mean that on the basis of your presuppositions, you cannot account for your assumptions. In fact, if your presuppositions about reality are true, then your assumptions cannot be true at the same time due to inconsistency and arbitrariness. Therefore, you are seeking to take the discussion out of the realm presuppositions so that you would not have to justify anything, but instead get to take your assumptions for granted. I see right through this. In fact, I believe that you realize if we continue the course that I have been directing the debate, that it will be clear that you have lost. Unless you do something serious soon, it is only going to get worse.

Clearly, Pastor Feinstein has a very different perception of the debate than Russell has. Interestingly, if you look at Russell’s summary of his points above, you’ll notice he is quite specific about the points that still remain to be addressed, some of which are directly cogent to the transcendental argument Pastor Feinstein is making, Pastor Feinstein’s smug dismissal notwithstanding.  Pastor Feinstein’s response, by contrast, is filled with vague but triumphant generalities and assertions, not to mention a repetition of the exact same double standard as Russell accused him of at the very beginning of his third post. He insists that Russell “account for” the existence of reality and logic, but denies that Christians need to “account for” God’s existence in the same way. Russell’s axioms have to be contingent on some kind of superstitious precondition, but Pastor Feinstein’s assumption—God—does not.

And then he warns us that it’s going to get worse. Oy.

The first point that you tried to make was that your assumptions are axiomatic. I reread your points a few times trying to see where the problem is and I do agree that miscommunication is going on, but I do not believe it is on my end. There are only two options that I can think of: a) You did not understand the nature of my argument in the last response; or b) You did understand it and you realize the precarious position it puts you in, and so you are attempting to move us away from the discussion about preconditions and thus have us begin with your assumptions.

I’ve noted before that Pastor Feinstein seems not so much to be engaging Russell’s points, but rather, engaging the role given to atheism by some kind of presuppositional script. That seems to be the case here. Russell’s argument was that both he and Pastor Feinstein are proceeding from some kind of fundamental, axiomatic presupposition that requires no further justification than itself. In Pastor Feinstein’s case it’s God as the “necessary” being, and in Russell’s case it’s the existence of logic and reality. Rather than engage this argument, either to agree with it or to dispute it, Pastor Feinstein addresses the scripted “atheist” position in which only atoms are real, and the atheist is trying to say we have to assume this without justification.

I told you that I agreed with your assumptions, but I do not agree with you concerning the notion that we do not have to justify them. I understand why you are appealing to your assumptions as axioms, but even an elementary level of epistemology overturns the axioms and requires us to discuss preconditions.

Pastor Feinstein’s argument is that Russell’s assumptions don’t deserve to be classified as axioms, and that it’s trivial to show that they have logical preconditions. His first example, however, is a bit bizarre.

For example, how do you (or the dictionary you cited) know that any given self-evident truth requires no proof?

Duh. We know that a self-evident truth requires no proof because “self-evident” means “that which requires no proof (other than itself, hence self-evident).” How do we know that Pastor Feinstein is called Pastor Feinstein? Just as “Pastor Feinstein” is the name we use to refer to Pastor Feinstein, “self-evident” is the adjective we use to describe things that require no further proof. A little further down, he’s going to argue that “preconditions only apply to contingent beings and objects, and by definition cannot apply to a necessary being.” How does he know? Because “necessary being,” in this particular philosophical context, means that which has no preconditions. It’s the same thing.

[What] authority do you (or any human) have by which you can arbitrarily declare that your three assumptions require no proof or explanation?

Notice how this distorts Russell’s argument. Russell is saying that his three assumptions—that reality exists, that we perceive reality through our senses, and that we need good reasons for what we believe—require no more proof than the assumption of a Creator does. This is an argument that neatly circumvents the double standard Pastor Feinstein is trying to apply, because Pastor Feinstein is accusing atheists of arbitrarily making their assumptions whilst simultaneously insisting that one can assume a Creator without addressing an equivalent number of preconditions for their assumption. In short, Pastor Feinstein is simply making the arbitrary assumption that Russell’s assumptions have preconditions, and his own assumptions do not.

It is very convenient to place inductive inference under the category of axioms. After all, if I grant this, then you can still believe in the validity of science despite the fact that materialistic atomism undermines the very idea of the uniformity of nature. I will not grant this, and thus as far as I am concerned, you have not answered the dilemma.

Actually, the reason inductive inference is valid is because material reality is and must necessarily be consistent with itself. By “material reality,” of course, we mean not just “that which is made of atoms,” but everything that exists in and of itself, independent of any subjective perceptions. It is this self-consistency that makes induction both possible and reliable. God has nothing to do with it, obviously, since God Himself requires a self-consistent material reality in order to have His own meaningful existence.

You said, “And yet, regardless of what presuppositions you may have, at some point we must reach a position that is simply asserted to be true and requires no explanation.” I disagree with you on this, as I have said many times now.

And yet, at the same time, Pastor Feinstein also agrees with Russell, since he himself proposes a Creator for Whom no explanation is possible, because God, as the “necessary” being, can have no prior causes to explain. This is the double standard that Russell speaks of. Pastor Feinstein disagrees with the need for axioms when employed by atheists, but he gladly asserts that a necessary being is both possible and axiomatic. But that’s because it’s the Christian asserting the axiom this time, which is why it’s ok.

The bottom line is that transcendental logic is necessary, even on the most fundamental assumptions. I will illustrate this with something rather simple. If you and I were playing each other in Call of Duty on the Playstation 3, it is obvious that the video game is real and that you and I are playing it. … The question is, “What preconditions have to be true for us to play this game?” Well, first, we have to have electricity and a high definition TV (otherwise what’s the point). … And from here we could keep going, until we have then asked about the preconditions of each of the other preconditions. At some point it will end (with the Christian God) because preconditions only apply to contingent beings and objects, and by definition cannot apply to a necessary being.

So he’s arbitrarily assuming that God (the Christian God no less) is the necessary being, at which point the explanations cease. Pastor Feinstein can explain how he arrived at the conclusion God exists, but he cannot explain the origin of God. Just as Russell said, we reach a position that is simply asserted to be true—no prior cause can serve as the explanation for God’s existence, because God has been arbitrarily designated as a being who has no preconditions. Except of course that He does: He cannot be logical and reasonable unless logic and reason exist; He cannot possess all knowledge unless knowledge exists; He can’t know about anything other than Himself unless there’s something besides Himself to know; He cannot cause anything to exist unless the law of cause and effect exists; He can’t know the future unless time exists; and so on.

What Pastor Feinstein is doing with his PS3 analogy is simply projecting his assumptions onto Russell’s argument. In the analogy, Russell’s three assumptions are equated with the end product: the game manufactured by the company and played on the game console. But Russell’s three assumptions are that reality exists, that we perceive reality via the senses, and that we need good reasons for what we believe. Those aren’t end products, or at least the first and last ones aren’t. We could just as well re-tell this analogy with God as the end product, and we’d be a lot better off, since the only place we ever see God show up in real life is in the perceptions of men, which sounds a lot more like an end product than the existence of reality does.

The bottom line is that Pastor Feinstein’s “transcendental logic” boils down to an elaborate rationalization for a superstitious and animistic assumption that everything we see must ultimately be caused by something very much like ourselves, only bigger, more magical, and less visible. Russell is trying over and over to get Pastor Feinstein to address the questions in the summary I posted at the beginning of this post, and all he is receiving in return is the relentless presumption that Pastor Feinstein’s worldview is correct, and that he (Russell) is somehow “dodging” the issue by questioning those assumptions instead of blindly embracing them.

16 Responses to “God and the PlayStation 3”

  1. john zande Says:

    Epic post! A great read!

  2. Sines Says:

    The presuppositional argument is really just throwing koans, complex questions with no real answer (Or that are very difficult to answer, if you think they can be satisfactorily answered, but the idea holds either way) designed to get a person to think, at the atheist and looking good when the atheist can’t answer the unanswered.

    When the atheist tries to ask the same koan back, refuse to play defensively and keep attacking.

    Presuppositionalism cannot be used by any honest person who has thought about it. I can imagine an honest and well intentioned believer hearing the argument, and giving it a try on an atheist friend, thinking it can’t hurt to try even if they don’t understand it, but no-one who seriously uses the argument can be anything more honest than a con-man. It’s nothing more than trying to pull a fast one, trying to look good before anyone can realize it’s all just hot air.

    It’s like the argument from design, but at least in the argument from design, a non-human intelligence could be the cause of the universe (whether it be a god or programmer). The question of where the intelligence comes from rules out the Christian god as traditionally presented, but the possibility of design is still there. However, this argument requires a being for whom logic and reason are a part of it, as the only possible way logic and reason could exist, ignoring that you could simply shave away all the parts of that being not related to logic and reason and still have that logic and reason. Not only are we asking “Then what neccesitated God” we find that it doesn’t make sense for a god to even make logic, since logic would be a neccesary precondition for such a being.

    Not to mention, and I’ve said this before, what part of “Likes the smell of burning blood” is ‘neccesary’? Feinstein still has a way to go to get to Jesus even if his argument worked.

    • mikespeir Says:

      “…you could simply shave away all the parts of that being not related to logic and reason and still have that logic and reason.”

      Yes. That’s what was rattling around in my noodle trying to find a way out, but couldn’t.

  3. Naked Bunny with a Whip Says:

    Russell’s axioms have to be contingent on some kind of superstitious precondition, but Pastor Feinstein’s assumption—God—does not.

    That’s why it’s call “presuppositional apologetics”, after all. Other apologetic approaches generally try to put a fig leaf over it when they beg the question or pull a definition out of nowhere, but presuppositionalism revels in it by proclaiming that the existence of logic itself proves them right.

    • Naked Bunny with a Whip Says:

      It feels a little solipsistic to me, as I think about it. If reality itself is contingent on God, with no independent existence, then we are nothing more than figments of his imagination, and our self-awareness is illusionary.

  4. Marcus J. Ranum Says:

    Can anyone explain how presuppositionalism is any different from just begging the question?

  5. ggwizz Says:

    Am I missing the operational difference between a presupposition and an assumption? It seems like using a fancy synonym for assumption is supposed to make it superior to an assumption in some way.

    • leftwingfox Says:

      Linguistically there is (I.e. a presupposition is an assumption implied by the syntax of a phrase. “I no longer go there” contains the assumption that I’ve been there before). The presupposition actually made here is based on circular logic (God must be as the bible describes, because he guided the bible that describes himself.) which itself has to then be defended.

      In the end most arguments here seem to be the same as “Science relies on faith”; giving equal weight to beliefs held firm regardless of evidence and beliefs held conditionally in accordance with evidence.

    • chaos_engineer Says:

      An assumption is something that you’re holding to be true based on the available evidence; you’re willing to change your mind about it if more evidence comes in.

      A presupposition is like an axiom – it’s so fundamental that it can’t be proven or disproven from evidence. One presupposition is “reality exists”. (If somebody proved that we were in The Matrix, that would just prove that “past reality was an illusion” – we’d still have the presuppostion that reality existed in the present according to our new understanding of it.)

      Having presuppositions is like breathing – if someone asks “Why do you breath?”, then I might come up with some fancy rationalization like, “I want to metabolize oxygen.” But on some level it doesn’t matter if I want to metabolize oxygen or not; i breath because it’s in my nature to breath.

      Now, about the possible presupposition “God Exists” – the problem is that a large number of people are able to leave happy, productive lives without that belief, which suggests that it’s not axiomatic, and can be downgraded from a presupposition to an assumption.

    • Graeme Says:

      Given that others are throwing in their definitions I will throw in mine.

      For me, a presupposition is an assumption made before the argument starts, usually to set the terms for the argument eg, that evidence and logic are the ways that will be used to come to a conclusion. (Feinstein is trying to say that in order to use this presupposition, the atheist has to accept that god exists. Hence, it is apologetics about the presuppositions).

      An assumption is something made during the course of the argument to sort out the positions, such as: “let’s assume that evolution is not true; what is your evidence for creationism?” or “let’s assume that god exists and that the bible is an accurate description of him; what does that say about god?”

  6. Skepticali Says:

    The term “materialism” really serves as a convenient “Weak Man” to attack – it’s not widely understood; it’s easy to pin on atheists; it’s plausible that believers would assume such a broad generalization is applicable; not every atheist would assume materialism, let alone be able to defend it adequately. From now on, I’ll be inclined to consider attacks on materialism as a “tell” that the apologist is using a presuppositional script.

    The accusation that Russell was dodging the transcendental argument mystified me when I first read it. I had to go back to the Pastor’s previous posts to find where he had adequately fashioned a transcendental argument. I saw the word “transcendental” a lot, but it never seemed like there was a lot of rational argument draped around it.

    The Pastor really could use a lesson from Dr. William Lane Craig. Love Craig or hate him, he organizes and delivers his arguments in neat packages that stick to a point, and are memorable. The Pastor couldn’t stick to a point if he was glued to it.

  7. Psychopomp Gecko Says:

    Haven’t been following this whole thing all that much, but if he’s arguing there has to be some precondition for something, but not God, what’s to stop someone from going, “Well, what was God’s precondition? Where did he or she come from? If he or she is outside the universe, where did this outside area come from? If god made it, then were was god before that? Why did he need to make a place outside the universe when he’s capable, presumably, of being unaffected by the universe even inside of it?”

    Just seems like he’s doing a lot of talking just to get faced with some obvious questions.

  8. Counter Apologist Says:

    Is it just me or when can we just nail the Pastor to the wall with “your assertion that god is a ‘necessary being’ requires an valid ontological argument, of which there are none, otherwise it’s just bald assertion”?

  9. Francois Tremblay Says:

    I think you made a little mistake there. It is materialism which has perception as its standard of justification (what is material is what we can perceive). It is the opponents of materialism who hold some other standard as a supplemental standard.


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