(Text: “Debating an Atheist“, Soli Deo Gloria, July 2, 2012)
I’m going to take a break from my usual practice of working through book-length manuscripts and indulge in something I’ve been wanting to do for a few months now. I’m going to shamelessly piggy-back on Russell Glasser’s marvelous idea of having an on-line debate with a defender of presuppositional apologetics. And worse, I’m not even going to bother to go out and find my own apologist to debate with—I’m just going to use the material that has already been presented in the existing debate. Consider this an extended post-mortem, if you will.
One caveat I need to make up front is that I’m not by any means an expert on presuppositional apologetics, so please bear with me (and ideally correct me) if I misunderstand or misrepresent the technical details in any way. I’ll do the best I can based on the knowledge I’ve picked up so far, and corrections/clarifications will be gratefully received.
Pastor Stephen Feinstein, a pastor at Sovereign Way Christian Church in Hesperia, CA and a Chaplain in the United States Army Reserve, opens his presentation as follows.
Matt can tell you from the start that I do not argue for a god, nor do I attempt to win opponents over to theism first, only later to try to convince them of Christian theism. No. Instead I argue from the outset for the Christian position only, and I affirm that the Christian worldview is the only worldview that is possible given the preconditions of intelligibility.
Here, in a nutshell, is Pastor Feinstein’s argument, right up front. When I first read this, it wasn’t entirely clear to me what he was referring to here, but now I have the advantage of being able to approach this paragraph after having read the subsequent arguments and exchanges, so it’s a bit more clear to me. His argument is going to be this (paraphrased):
In order for intelligibility to exist, certain preconditions must be true, and those preconditions are such that the Christian worldview is the only possible, rational worldview.
Obviously, this is a fairly incomplete preview of his argument, and not the substance of the argument itself. In order to establish logically that his argument is correct, he must do the following:
- He must define what he means by intelligibility.
- He must demonstrate that his definition of intelligibility is correct, i.e. that intelligibility, as he defines it, exists.
- He must define what the preconditions of intelligibility are.
- He must show that his list of preconditions is correct, i.e. he’s not listing something as a precondition when it is not genuinely required.
- He must show that his list of preconditions is complete, i.e. he is not omitting any of the necessary preconditions for intelligibility.
- He must show that every genuine precondition is compatible with a Christian worldview.
- He must show that every other worldview is irreconcilably incompatible with at least one of the preconditions for intelligibility.
This may seem like a lot, but it’s no more than what he has claimed in his opening argument. If he gets everything else right, but is using an incorrect definition of intelligibility, then his argument proves merely that Christianity is the only worldview consistent with a false definition of intelligibility—a “victory,” but not a very useful one. Likewise, if he adopts the wrong list of preconditions for intelligibility, then even if he proves his point, he’s merely establishing Christianity as the only worldview compatible with one particular error. Nor is it any terrible criticism to point out that competing worldviews are inconsistent with that error. Thus, to establish the correctness of his claim above, Pastor Feinstein needs not only to get his argument right, but he needs to demonstrate each of the seven prerequisites listed above as well.
From a logical perspective, this is what’s most important in Pastor Feinstein’s opening statement. For a Christian apologist like Pastor Feinstein, however, the most important part is the declaration that “I argue from the outset for the Christian position only.” Consequently, that is the part he follows up on, rather than on the logical requirements.
I hold to the historic Christian faith as elucidated from the Christian canon (the 66 books of the Protestant Bible). Yes, I am defending a theological position, but Christianity is more than just a theology, it is also a philosophy. It holds a position about ultimate reality (metaphysics), possesses a distinct view of knowledge (epistemology), and it contains a system of moral and ethical absolutes (metaethics).
None of that is true, actually. Even if we imagined that there was ever one singular “historic Christian faith,” and that it was contained in the 66 books of the Protestant Bible, you cannot get Pastor Feinstein’s philosophy by putting together any combination of Bible quotes. Pastor Feinstein’s philosophy is the work of a number of latter day Protestant philosophers putting together a philosophy (and in fact a distinctly Western philosophy) whose more or less openly acknowledged goal is to try and justify some version or other of some alleged “historic Christian faith.” It’s a commentary about the Bible, not the text of the Bible itself.
As for this so-called “historic Christian faith,” there has never been any such thing. The whole reason we even have a canon of Scripture is because Church Councils were trying to resolve some of the many divergent opinions and beliefs that have been present in Christianity since the first century, and in Judaism for even longer. The phrase “historic Christian faith” merely reviews the spectrum of differing ancient beliefs, picks out those elements most compatible with one’s own beliefs, and declares that these were the doctrines that have been right all along. That’s why we commonly see that different Christians pick out different beliefs as “the historic Christian faith.”
But Pastor Feinstein drives on regardless. After asserting that all science “falls under the scope of philosophy and specifically epistemology,” he asserts,
We believe in a two-level concept of reality (as opposed to materialism’s one-level concept). Simply put, you have the Creator and the creation. The Creator is eternal meaning He has no beginning and no end, and possesses all of the omni-characteristics. He is what in philosophy is referred to as a “necessary being,” whereas all of creation by contrast is “contingent beings.”
First of all, he is mistaken when he says materialism is a “one-level” concept of reality. Materialism is based on making a distinction between objective reality and mere subjective beliefs. As such, it has as many “levels” of reality as may prove to be verifiably consistent with the real world. Indeed, Christianity may prove to be the pauper in this regard, with only two levels, depending on what we find as we pursue string theory and other materialistic sciences.
Pastor Feinstein’s more significant mistake, though, is when he ascribes to the Christian God the role of “necessary being.” Before we talk about that, though, the philosophical concepts of “necessary” vs. “contingent” may require some explanation. We’re not necessarily talking about cause-and-effect here, but rather, logical contingency. In other words, when we say “A is contingent on B,” we’re saying “A cannot exist or be true if B does not exist or is false.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that B causes A specifically, but only that A’s existence requires that B must also exist.
The “necessary” being, then, is the one on which everything else is ultimately contingent, but which is itself contingent on nothing else. Its existence does not require that anything else exist, and its truth is not predicated on anything else being true. Its own existence/truth is not arbitrary or hypothetical, however. The necessary being itself must exist (must be true), otherwise nothing can exist (be true). That’s why it’s called “necessary being.”
The problem for Pastor Feinstein is that only a pantheistic, non-Christian God can be the necessary being. The existence of a Creator God, as distinct from His creation, is properly contingent on the existence of a greater reality which contains multiple beings, or existences, some of which are divine and some of which are not. This reality is necessarily a greater reality than the Creator God because it contains everything that is not God in addition to everything that is God.
The truly necessary being, then, is the greater, self-consistent reality. This reality is truly “necessary” in the philosophical sense because obviously the existence of reality itself cannot depend on anything else, since anything that’s not part of reality is either untrue or non-existent, and is thus not available for reality to be contingent on. The very definition of “to exist” derives from whether or not a thing is part of, and consistent with, this greater reality. Thus, the greater reality is the necessary being upon which even the existence of the Creator God must be contingent.
Now the typical rebuttal at this point would be to suggest that God’s existence is not, in fact, contingent, because once upon a time He was the only being who did exist, and everything else came into existence later. Creation’s existence is called “contingent” because God came chronologically first and created everything else.
The problem with this rebuttal is that time itself is merely a dimension of the material universe. If God’s status as “necessary being” is dependent on what time it is, then once again you’ve made God a contingent being, and in this case you’ve made His existence explicitly contingent on one of the aspects of the material universe, so now you’re even worse off. Taking reality as a whole, and remembering that time is only a part of a greater reality, we can see that the existence of a Creator God is contingent on the greater reality that includes things, like time, that are not the Creator God.
Meanwhile, back to talking about the truly necessary being, you might have noticed I’ve described it as “a greater, self-consistent reality.” That’s an important attribute of the necessary being, because self-consistency is what makes it even possible to make the distinction between necessary and contingent, not to say between true and false. That may be painfully obvious to some, but it’s a point that relates directly to God’s existence being contingent, so I’m going to belabor it just a bit here.
The difference between real-world truth and all the various forms of falsehood is that things that are really true are things that are consistent with this greater, self-consistent reality. Or to say it in slightly different terms, things that truly exist are things that are part of the greater, self-consistent reality. Things that are false, things that are delusions or lies or misunderstandings, are things that are not part of the greater, self-consistent reality, and may not even be consistent with themselves.
That latter criterion doesn’t always hold, of course. You can make up a story about, say, war in the Middle Earth, and with great care and effort produce a tale that manages to be consistent with its own terms. Yet despite this internal self-consistency, we say that the story is not true because at some point there’s a gap between the story and the real world. The distinction between “true” and “not true” is a distinction that is contingent on the existence of a greater, self-consistent reality that real/true things are part of and that false things are not.
This distinction between “true” and “not true” propagates to all other claims as well. For example, the distinction between “divine” and “not divine” is contingent on the distinction between true and not true: before you can say whether a thing is or is not divine, there must be a difference between “it is true that X is divine” and “it is not true that X is divine.” Otherwise, “divine” and “not divine” are equally true for everything, and we’re back to either atheism or pantheism. Thus, the distinction between divine and not divine is contingent on the necessary difference between true and not true, which in turn is contingent on the greater self-consistent reality, which ultimately is the only truly necessary being.
The inherent and necessary self-consistency of reality is what makes intelligibility possible. No Creator God is necessary. Reality is intelligible because it is self-consistent. In fact, any reasonable definition of intelligibility is necessarily going to boil down to the observation that reality is self-consistent, and that “truth” means being consistent with this self-consistency, and that existence means being part of this reality. Quite apart from any subjective assessments of any observer, the existence of orderly and consistent relationships between different aspects of reality is due entirely and exclusively to the self-consistent nature of reality.
That means that Pastor Feinstein’s argument is doomed from the start, because the genuine and correct prerequisites for intelligibility are prerequisites that are also shared by his regrettably contingent Creator God. And since these prerequisites are more than adequately supplied by the greater reality already, without the need for any Creator Gods, he’s not going to be able to use them to eliminate non-Christian worldviews. Frankly, it looks to me like he’s done before he’s even properly started, because he’s going off a false premise. But we’ll continue through his arguments anyway, at least for the next few weeks. Stay tuned.