(Text: “Debating an Atheist — Round Three“, Soli Deo Gloria, July 8, 2012)
At the end of last week’s post, I speculated that the reason for Pastor Feinstein’s repeated promises of “I’m going to argue this,” and “I’m going to demolish your arguments,” might be that he doesn’t actually have a stand-alone argument, but instead only has a collection of snappy comebacks for certain stereotypical “atheist sayings.” Russell, however, hasn’t been following the script. Instead, he’s been trying to grapple with the real issues, leaving Pastor Feinstein without the straight lines he needs in order to set up his zingers. Hence the repeated promises of “I’m going to mop the floor with you [—just as soon as you give me the right cues, dammit!].”
I’m not a mind-reader, of course, so I can’t know that this is what Pastor Feinstein was really thinking. The way he introduces post #3, however, makes me think that I might be right.
As a side note, whenever I quote Russell in a regular paragraph, I italicize the quotation. If I place a statement in quotation marks but it is NOT italicized, it is NOT a quote from Russell, but instead is a hypothetical quote that I am inserting into the argument. Such quotes come from past experiences debating unbelievers and reading much literature on the subject.
Looks to me like he’s tired of waiting for Russell to say the lines he’s supposed to say (according to the script), and so he [Pastor Feinstein] is just going to introduce them into the dialog himself, as “hypothetical quotes.” That should make things interesting, because that means Russell is going to be trying to continue the actual, original discussion, while Pastor Feinstein is going to respond to an entirely separate, hypothetical discussion that follows his script better.
Pastor Feinstein begins his discussion by complaining about Russell’s suggestion that he’d spent too much time belaboring a trivial point about the role of logic that neither side disagrees with. He doesn’t contest the facts of Russell’s observation, but he feels like the tone was “condescending.”
Next, he accuses Russell of dodging the issue (which is somewhat ironic, coming from a guy who spent most of his last post promising how great his arguments were going to be).
With that said, you are doing exactly what I feared you would do. Like so many other atheists, you are putting forth smoke and mirrors to try to get out of the trap that your position puts you in. You assume the world is real. Excellent! It is real. You assume that we learn from sense experience. Great! We do learn from sense experience. Yet, you have failed to ask if these very things could exist in an atheistic universe where the governing principle is random chance. Can we move from elementary logic to higher levels of transcendental logic if you insist on ducking the issue of presuppositions?
Notice how he’s casting Russell (and atheists in general) in the role of Ignorant Person Who Assumes Too Much. According to Pastor Feinstein’s script, we assume that the world is real. We assume that we learn from sense experience. We fail to ask certain important questions. We are the assumers, and if we happen to be right about some things, it’s just coincidence because we haven’t really questioned our own beliefs—at least according to the script.
But in fact this is not the case. It’s not that we simply assume that the world is real, it’s that reality must necessarily exist, because it is the context in which the meaning of everything is defined. Even for the solipsist, reality must exist, since the solipsist knows infallibly that he himself must exist. He cannot be mistaken about his own existence, because if he does not exist, then there is no one to make the mistake. Thus, reality must exist, and at least part of it must be knowable, since even the solipsist knows infallibly that he exists.
Apart from that, the solipsist also knows that there exists something besides himself, since the identity of “self” requires a distinction between “self” and “not self”. Even if all his perceptions are an illusion, they are still “not self,” since they are an illusion whereas the solipsist himself is not.
So, then, we do not merely assume that reality exists. We know infallibly that reality does exist, because each of us knows infallibly that we ourselves really do exist. But more than that, we observe that we learn from sense perception and logic. We do not merely assume that we learn from sense perception and logic, we observe it.
Consider the solipsist again: he believes that, while he himself exists, all of his perceptions are illusion. But what does “illusion” mean? Where did he obtain the concept that “illusion” and “reality” are both meaningful concepts that are contrary to one another? “Meaning” is the relationship between a concept and the reality that the concept represents. By describing perception as “illusion,” the solipsist is assuming that his perceptions are correctly conveying to him the real meaning of the distinction between illusion and reality. But if his perceptions are conveying to him the actual, real-world difference between illusion and reality, that means that his perceptions are not, in fact, entirely illusory.
Clearly, solipsism is a self-defeating philosophy, since the solipsist cannot make any non-self-contradictory assertion that his perceptions are illusion rather than reality. And yet, to assert that we cannot and do not learn from our sense perceptions is to argue solipsism, which is the reductio ad absurdum that demonstrates that we can and do learn from sense experience and and reason, correctly applied. Notice: we do not just assume that we learn from sense experience and reason, we observe it and can verify it via logic and reason.
Meanwhile, Pastor Feinstein is making some assumptions of his own. He accuses Russell of having “failed to ask if these very things could exist in an atheistic universe where the governing principle is random chance.” In other words, he is assuming that there would be no order of any kind in a universe where God did not exist. That’s not just an arbitrary assumption, it’s also a highly implausible one. The nature of reality itself is inherently ordered, by virtue of its qualities as the necessary being.
For example, reality makes a distinction between things that are real and things that are not. This regular distinction between the real and the unreal is one type of order, and it necessarily exists whether God does or not. The difference between chaos and order is itself another form of order. Such fundamental orderings as the law of identity and the law of non-contradiction are both necessary aspects of the nature of reality, with or without God. The default state of atheistic reality, therefore, is order. It might be undirected order, but it’s still order.
Pastor Feinstein’s assumption is, in fact, essentially a codification of superstition as some kind of Supreme Directive: whenever we see a natural phenomenon, we must attribute it to some kind of magical, invisible person or force, in the absence of any plausible/verifiable non-magical connection between the two. What Pastor Feinstein describes is not an atheistic universe, but rather a universe in which superstition is not a trustworthy source of knowledge. What if we could see things happening in an orderly manner, and you couldn’t arbitrarily assign it to some invisible magic being? Horrors! a universe without purpose!
This, I think, is what Pastor Feinstein means by the governing principle being “random chance.” The real-world things we call “random” aren’t really random at all, except possibly at the quantum level, and even there we can’t be sure they’re truly random, as opposed to merely conforming to some as-yet-undiscovered pattern of relationships. What we call “random” phenomena are only relatively random, meaning we ourselves did not understand the cause-and-effect relationships in enough detail to accurately predict the outcome. “Random” effects in the real world are actually purely mechanistic phenomena, precisely because they are undirected. And mechanistic outcomes are the most orderly and regular outcomes possible, again precisely because they are undirected.
What Pastor Feinstein means by “random chance,” though, is that these phenomena are superstition-proof. You can’t look at what happens and claim that the credit for it goes to the invisible magical supernatural person of your choosing. If you suddenly suffer an on-the-job injury and have to go on disability for a year, and the governing principle in the universe is what Pastor Feinstein calls “random chance,” then superstition does not work, and you can’t claim that your injury occurred because some supernatural deity wanted to put you on the disabled list. And that scares the shit out of some people, so they cling more tightly to their superstitions, and dress it in the togas of ancient Greek philosophers, and call it presuppositionalism.
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.
Notice the script Pastor Feinstein is reading from. What he call’s Russell’s reasoning isn’t Russell’s at all, it’s the reasoning assigned to the Ignorant Assumer role in the canned script he is reading from. I can understand why Russell found this discussion a bit frustrating. There’s a story about a guy sitting in a rest room stall, when the guy in the stall next to him says, “Hi, how’s it going?” He’s a bit surprised, but responds, “Not bad. You?” The other fellow says, “Pretty good,” and so on. I forget the rest of the conversation but it ends with the other guy saying, “Look I’ll call you back in a few minutes, there’s a guy sitting in the stall next to me and he’s answering everything I say.” Trying to have a philosophy discussion with a Pastor who is actually reading from an entirely different script is rather like that. But now check this out:
Russell, any good student of logic knows that all logic at its core is guilty of circular reasoning. What we are looking for is who is guilty of narrow circularity. At the end of the day, it isn’t the Christian position.
“All logic at its core is guilty of circular reasoning.” That’s a terribly misleading half-truth. It’s true that, when you get right down to what makes logic itself valid, you end up with a self-referential statement. That’s because logic is an aspect of reality, the necessary being. It’s a thing whose existence is non-contingent. You can’t trace its origins back any further than itself, because it has no origins back any further than itself. There is no more-ultimate source for its validity because it is the ultimate source for logical validity.
That, however, is the only context in which a self-referential proof can (and must) be valid. All other logical arguments are derived from, and contingent upon, the ultimate meaning and validity of the logical order that is inherent in reality itself. Thus, in derived and contingent contexts, it’s a fallacy to employ circular reasoning, because doing so breaks the logical connection back to the underlying logical foundation from which the validity of any particular argument must be derived.
Or to use a physical analogy, the validity of logic itself can and must be self-supporting, and all arguments derived from logic are hanging, as it were, from a string going back either to logic itself or to some other logical conclusion suspended directly or indirectly from the supporting superstructure. Circular reasoning takes a dependent argument and ties the string back to itself, and since the dependent argument is not the self-supporting superstructure, it falls. Only when you follow all the strings back to the anchor that supports them all do you find the self-supporting, self-referential, necessary being of logic itself. Thus, the self-referential argument is valid only when establishing the validity of logic itself, and not valid when applied to any other argument that depends on the validity of logic.
So again, what Pastor Feinstein calls the “assumptions” of atheists turn out to be a lot more than just assumptions. There may be many atheists out there who do just take it for granted that reality exists and that we learn from sense experience, and perhaps this is why Pastor Feinstein thinks his comebacks are such zingers. But the fact remains that there’s a lot of solid, objective substance to atheistic observations, whether individual atheists have worked out the details or not.
Christianity, though—not so much. I get the impression that Pastor Feinstein would like to say that, since circular reasoning is sometimes ok, it is therefore not illogical for Christians to use circular reasoning to conclude that God exists. That in itself is a fallacy, above and beyond the fallacy of circular reasoning. But we’ll get to that when Pastor Feinstein does. Stay tuned.