Preconditions of intelligibility

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

According to Pastor Stephen Feinstein, his debate with Russell Glasser was really a debate about assumptions and epistemology.

The assumptions that you accept will cause you to interpret evidence in a particular way…

We both are claiming that certain things happened, and we both need to be able to justify what we claim. Yet, if our presuppositions are epistemologically weak, or even worse they are impossible, then we cannot justify what we claim. So it is not useless to talk about these assumptions, for it is here that I am going to effectively refute your positions.

This, then, is the goal that Pastor Feinstein sets for himself, or at least one of the goals he claims to be able to accomplish. Let’s see how he goes about trying to achieve that.

He starts by contrasting the conclusions that creationists draw based on the assumption of “catastrophism,” versus the conclusions that scientists draw based on “uniformitarianism.” Setting aside the inaccurate terminology he uses, do you notice anything missing from his analysis below?

So the question at hand is whether or not we are at an impasse. Do we simply agree to disagree, or do we actually start evaluating our assumptions? Do you simply commit the logical fallacy of ad populum and say, “Because a majority of scientists hold position A, therefore it must be true,” or do you instead say, “Truth and fact cannot be reduced to majority opinion, and therefore we need to judge the merit of each assumption?” I hold to the latter, and I hope that you do as well.

That all sounds good, but what exactly do we mean by “judge the merit of each assumption” if we’re not going to do so on the basis of evidence and reason? This is the Achilles heel of Pastor Feinstein’s argument. The reason why so many scientists reach consistent conclusions is because reality is consistent with itself. If we judge the merit of scientific assumptions on the basis of how accurately they describe objective reality, and do the same for creationist assumptions, the scientific assumptions prove better. That’s why there are so many theistic evolutionists, and so few atheistic creationists.

Moving on, Pastor Feinstein announces his intentions regarding how he’s going to prove that atheism is intellectually impossible. I’m not sure why he keeps promising that he’s going to make some irrefutable arguments, since he’s already up to the second post of a mere 5 post series. A cynic might suspect he’s stalling and trying to run out the clock. But in any case, here’s his announced intention.

I plan on saying, “Let’s start by assuming the Bible is true,” and I also plan on saying, “Let’s start by assuming atheism is true.” From there we are going to talk about the necessary preconditions of intelligibility to see which set of assumptions is even possible in the first place.

Seems a little backwards, doesn’t it? Why not just talk about the necessary preconditions of intelligibility up front, and save yourself the bother of making unwise assumptions? The necessary preconditions of intelligibility are simple: reality must be consistent with itself. Intelligibility requires that we be able to employ concepts, which are mental representations corresponding to properties and/or objects in the real world, at some level of abstraction. To be meaningful, concepts must be consistent (at some level, at least), with objective reality, and that in turn requires that reality be consistent with itself. Otherwise we end up with concepts that refer only to some inconsistent and thus non-meaningful state, thus making them unintelligible and useless.

Notice that to reach this conclusion we need assume neither Christianity nor atheism. Intelligibility depends on the self-consistent nature of reality whether there’s any God or not. Indeed, if reality lacked this quality, God Himself would not exist in any meaningful way, because when reality itself is lacking in self-consistency, knowledge is meaningless and impossible, which means God could not be omniscient. (He also would be unable to be omnipotent or loving or eternal, but I’ll leave a discussion of that as an exercise for the reader.)

Moving on, we find Pastor Feinstein making some fairly reasonable points, as far as they go anyway.

It is not good enough for me to say, “Russell, I agree with you that this world is real, that we learn from the senses, that reasonable standards are necessary, and that bald assertion fails to prove anything.” By the way, I agree with you on all of these things, but with one revision.

His one revision is that we also learn things via logic and reason.

Concerning my revision of our agreed assumptions, I would add that apart from our senses, we learn maybe as much from logic or deduction as we do from sense experience.

And that’s a good thing, which I’m sure Russell would also agree with. And why is it possible for us to learn as much from logic and deduction as we do from sense experience? Again, because of the inherent property of self-consistency that is the defining characteristic of reality. Self-consistency means more than just that reality does not contradict itself. It means that there are ordered relationships between the various objects and attributes that compose objective reality. When we apply logic and reason (or at least, when we apply them correctly), we are following these ordered relationships from the understanding we already possess to a new understanding of a previously unexplored aspect of reality. Thus we learn.

Interestingly, our awareness of logic and deduction are only possible because we have access to sense experience, and are able to perceive objective reality accurately enough to observe the patterns that we codify as the laws of logic. If we were somehow perceptually isolated from the real world, and unable to perceive anything, we would have no way to acquire knowledge of logic, any more than we could know anything else. Logic and reason are ordered relationships between the various aspects of reality, and thus without any awareness of those aspects, we would have no way to arrive at an awareness of the relationships between them.

Meanwhile, Pastor Feinstein is still preparing to give us his answer, and he does so by spelling out some questions that he believes atheists won’t have good responses for.

However, I want us to account for these things. What are the necessary preconditions of this universe, as we know it? Why are we able to rely on our senses? What are the necessary preconditions for our senses to be reliable? Why must there be reasonable standards? What are the necessary preconditions for any standards at all that avoids the hopelessness of relativity?

As we’ve seen, though, these are all fairly easy questions with some sound, solid, and atheistic answers. The necessary preconditions for the universe include a self-consistent reality, since that’s the necessary prerequisite for everything. Why can we rely on our senses? Because (a) there’s a self-consistent reality for us to perceive and (b) because our senses are part of this self-consistent reality, two circumstances that are also the necessary precondition for our senses to be reliable.

Why must there be reasonable standards? Again, two reasons, one practical and one theoretical. The practical reason is that our senses and indeed our minds are material phenomena, and are thus subject to physical limitations. Notice again that this is true even if you assume Christianity: you may call the mind some kind of spiritual phenomenon, but in actual practice the function of the mind is subject to physical limits, and can be impaired or even suppressed by physical things like alcohol. Even the Bible warns us that ethanol impairs the mind. Thus, we need to bear in mind the physical limitations of our minds and senses.

The theoretical reason why we need reasonable standards is because all sense perceptions–even if you include “spiritual” or “psychic” perceptions (for the sake of argument, say)–are necessarily abstractions of things that are true in the real world. If I show you a U.S. one-dollar bill and ask you what you see in the middle, you may say you see a picture of George Washington, or you may say you see a piece of paper with ink on it, or you may say you see a crease where the dollar has been folded, and so on. Each perception of a thing selects out only certain details about the thing, and leaves other facts un-enumerated, in order to keep the amount of information at a manageable level.

Because of these two factors, all of our perceptions (even if we include “spiritual” perceptions) are necessarily incomplete approximations. If we do not continuously compare our perceptions against the infallible standard of objective reality, we run the risk of compounding trivial errors and inaccuracies, and turning them into major misconceptions and delusions. That’s why it’s so important to have a scientific epistemology that continuously verifies its understanding against objective reality, and why we need to avoid religious epistemologies that depend exclusively on fallible human approximations like individual books and authoritative dogmas.

And to address the last question in Pastor Feinstein’s list, the necessary precondition for non-relative standards is that there exist (again) an objective, self-consistent reality against which we can compare our perceptions, reasoning, and conclusions. But actually, there are two preconditions: not only must objective reality exist, but we must be willing to use objective reality as our ultimate standard for verifying whether our beliefs are really true.

One of the major problems with the Christian worldview is that it does not allow for the possibility that any of its essential doctrines could be wrong, and therefore does not subject its dogmas to real-world measurements that have any genuine chance of showing them to be truly false. This isolation from real-world correction is why there are so many different and incompatible varieties of Christianity, since each accumulates error in its own way, and none of them have any objective means of re-converging on a common reality.

Moving on, when you commented on the Biblical definition of God, you then asked me how I plan on justifying any of it since you personally agree with none of it… I am going to advance a preliminary argument that will sound absurd to you… The Biblical God must exist, because if He does not exist, then we can know nothing at all. Or let me put it this way. Christianity must be true because without it we lose all intelligibility.

Here, I think, is the crux of Pastor Feinstein’s argument, and in a nutshell it boils down to simple superstition. We see something in the world (intelligibility), and we do not know how to explain it, so we simply attribute it to some arbitrary, invisible, magical force or person. That’s superstition. It might be dressed up in sophisticated or philosophical-sounding jargon, but in the end it’s a fancy way of doing what pagan animists have always done: explaining the world around them by appealing to magic spirits.

Had Pastor Feinstein been of a tad less superstitious bent, he could have gone beyond the tendentious line of reasoning with which he brings himself to the conclusion that God must be the source of intelligibility. With a bit more thought, we can see that God cannot be the Creator of the kind of order that is the precondition for intelligibility, because that would mean His own uncreated nature did not already manifest any intelligible order. He would have to be, by nature, chaotic, illogical, and technically insane. Logic, reason, and order are unlikely to be the creations of such a mad and unreasoning deity.

Nor can we propose a coherent theory in which intelligibility is uniquely an attribute of the nature of God. Intelligibility is simply the by-product of the self-consistent nature of reality, so in order to make intelligibility an exclusively divine attribute instead of a universal one, you’d have to propose a God Who was consistent with Himself but Who existed in a reality that did not share this self-consistency. Creation would thus need to lack the very intelligibility and self-consistency that Pastor Feinstein wants to use as proof that God must be real. Otherwise, if both Creator and Creation (and thus all of reality) shared the same self-consistent nature, then this self-consistency would be an attribute of reality itself, and not uniquely an attribute of God or of the universe. Only a non-Christian, pantheistic God could possess, by nature, the common self-consistency that we find in reality as a whole.

That’s a good place to stop this week. We still don’t know yet whether Pastor Feinstein has any good arguments, because he keeps telling us how great they’re going to be, without actually presenting more than a hint of them. (Maybe he’s waiting for some incautious statement he can pounce on and cry “Gotcha!”?) In the meantime, though, his whole line of thinking sounds like a non-starter based on incomplete, biased, and superstitious analysis.

12 Responses to “Preconditions of intelligibility”

  1. Rodney Nelson Says:

    Christianity must be true because without it we lose all intelligibility.

    There are billions of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists who would disagree with this statement. First the pastor has to show that gods can be shown to exist before he tries to justify the existence of his particular deity.

  2. David Evans Says:

    “The Biblical God must exist, because if He does not exist, then we can know nothing at all”

    At that point Feinstein should have stopped and thought hard. Even if he has an argument that intelligibility requires a God with certain properties, how can he possibly know that only the Christian God will do? I have seen good arguments that Allah is a more rational concept than the Trinity. Or, of course, the true God might be one that no-one has thought of.

    Personally I think the answer lies in the multiverse. If there are universes where reality is chaotic, they will have no intelligent life to observe them. It takes many millions of years of consistent physics to evolve intelligence. It’s no surprise that we live in such a universe.

  3. Crip Dyke Says:

    Feinstein did think hard about that. He came to the conclusion that the trinity is what makes the biblical god, because god is inherently social because humans are inherently social and we are made in the image of god. How could god be *inherently* social if he was an undivided one-ness? Thus god has to be divided, multi-partite. Then he dismisses the idea of a dualist god. Then he dismisses the idea of poly-partite god. Thus God must be a trinity.

    Thus, he concludes, the only possible god is the trinity Artemis/Selene/Hecate. Mother/Maiden/Crone is the only religious figure that makes sense.

    Or, wait, that wasn’t it…

    • Jer Says:

      Thus, he concludes, the only possible god is the trinity Artemis/Selene/Hecate. Mother/Maiden/Crone is the only religious figure that makes sense.

      Blasphemer. We all know that the only possible god is the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter/Mars/Quirinus. Or possibly the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter/Juno/Minerva. Or the Trimurti of Brahman/Shiva/Vishnu. Or perhaps the triad of Osiris/Isis/Horus. Or maybe Kore/Demeter/Hecate.

    • LykeX Says:

      And why three? Why not two, or four, or twenty thousand? He would have to demonstrate that a triune god alone supports intelligibility, no other kind.

      Incidentally, he would also need to establish that the “made in the image of god” bit is a necessary precondition or we would be justified in tossing the whole thing out. We already know that god is capable of creating things that have characteristics different from him (he’s righteous an we’re sinful; he’s all-knowing while we’re ignorant, etc.), so why would he need to be social in order for us to be?

      I ask because I recall that Stephen specifically stated that he would argue not just for A god, but for the CHRISTIAN god.

  4. James Willmott Says:

    “If we were somehow perceptually isolated from the real world, and unable to perceive anything, we would have no way to acquire knowledge of logic, any more than we could know anything else.”

    Doesn’t this describe God before creation? Existing completely alone, devoid of anything else ( except his two other Self’s if you accept Trinitinarianism ) simply because he hadn’t created anything else yet? And if there was nothing else, how did he know anything beyond nothingness and his other Self’s, to be able to subsequently create?

    I can’t rationalize how an eternal being whose reality consists solely of itself, could possibly know anything and be thus able to act…

    • Deacon Duncan Says:

      The catch is that if nothing else existed, then Time did not exist either, so this couldn’t be “before” He created something else. Actually, if nothing else existed, then He could also never create anything, since “creation” requires a point in time where the thing you are creating does not exist. There is no point in time where time does not exist, so He never could create anything anyway you look at it.

      • James Willmott Says:

        That’s true, and I had considered that angle a few times in the past. Even if we allow Time to exist without being created, would you agree the eternally alone being still has no ‘input’ to work with?

      • Deacon Duncan Says:

        Indeed — not only nothing to work with but also no way to change the situation (since “change” means a difference in state between one point in time and another). The idea that once upon a time God was the only thing that existed is an idea that collapses under its own weight.

  5. Nathanael Says:

    “He would have to be, by nature, chaotic, illogical, and technically insane. Logic, reason, and order are unlikely to be the creations of such a mad and unreasoning deity.”

    But they *could* be, statistically speaking. We could all be at the mercy of an insane god who happened to invent rationality for insane reasons. There are actually some mentally ill people who believe this. Intellectually it seems one of the harder god-concepts to disprove. However, it’s one of the least popular ones. I wonder why? Well, contrasting this to the idea that there are no gods, I prefer the idea that there are no gods. That’s probably why. 🙂

  6. Brian M Says:

    Nathanael: Gnosticism dealt with this in their mythology much better than Orthodoxy…The Demiurge responsible for the “material” universe is a flawed, insane being. This is an unpopular minority view for many reasons, including the historical fact that the Catholic Church repeatedly slaughtered Gnostic heretics. As late as the middle ages!

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