(Text: “Debating an Atheist — Round Three“, Soli Deo Gloria, July 8, 2012)
By his third post, Pastor Stephen Feinstein has grown tired of waiting for Russell Glasser to say the lines he’s supposed to say, according to the mental script Paster Feinstein wants the discussion to follow, and has begun introducing the atheist’s scripted arguments himself. How else can he deliver his zingers and make it look like Christianity is more rational than atheism? His first zinger is “Yes, I’m using circular reasoning, but so are you, and my circular reasoning is more valid than yours.”
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…
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.
Yes, after rewriting Russell’s side of the conversation to follow a canned script instead of the things Russell was actually saying, and after injecting his own assumption that an atheistic universe would be “random chance,” he actually accuses Russell of creating a dishonest debate.
Pastor Feinstein has not, as yet, defined for us how he measures the width of someone’s circular reasoning, so it’s not clear how even the strawman version of atheistic reasoning has more “narrow circularity” than his own. It could be that “narrow circularity” is just the believer’s way of saying “I know you are, but what am I?” as a comeback to people who notice his circular reasoning.
As we saw last week, though, there is no fallacy involved in observing that logic validates itself. Logic, as an aspect of necessary being, is not contingent upon anything else for its existence and meaning, which means no other agency can exist by which we could validate the validity of logic. In this case, and only in this case, self-referential validation is valid and meaningful.
In the interests of honest debate, therefore, Pastor Feinstein ought to acknowledge that Russell’s argument, even when reduced to the strawman from Pastor Feinstein’s script, makes no assumptions beyond that which must necessarily be true. “Narrow” circularity, properly understood, is a good thing, because there’s only one circumstance where a self-validating argument is legitimate. By limiting self-validation to the necessary nature of logic itself, the atheistic argument avoids the fallacies inherent in trying to apply circular reasoning to other, more contingent arguments.
This is where Pastor Feinstein’s attempted zinger backfires, because by this point he has essentially agreed that his argument is circular in ways that go beyond “narrow” reliance on the self-validating nature of logic itself. Any rug he tries to pull out from under Russell’s feet is only going to come out from under his own. That’s not going to stop him from putting on his best game face, though
Russell, there is no point playing games over these issues, so please answer me honestly. Do you or don’t you have assumptions that depend on presuppositions? And if your presuppositions can be shown to be impossible, then does not your entire position come tumbling down? The answer is yes, whether you like it or not.
The difference between Russell’s position and Pastor Feinstein’s is that, as a skeptic, Russell makes provisional assumptions that he then validates and refines through interaction with the real world. Due to the self-consistent nature of reality, this process of assumption, testing, and refinement creates a feedback loop by which any initial inaccuracies can be corrected. Meanwhile, Pastor Feinstein is, understandably, thinking in terms of dogmatic presuppositions, which are non-provisional and non-correctable and which, if they turn out to be wrong, cause the believer’s whole position to come tumbling down.
It’s telling that Pastor Feinstein assumes Russell’s provisional assumptions and presuppositions are subject to the same brittle fragility as his own dogmatic presuppositions. But the two are very different things. Russell is making only those presuppositions which must necessarily be true: that reality exists, and that it is, by nature, ordered, reasonable, and intelligible. Thus, the qualities of order, logic, and intelligibility derive, as they must, from the nature of reality itself. Pastor Feinstein is simply not going to be able to show that Russell’s presuppositions of order and reason in reality are impossible.
Pastor Feinstein’s presupposition, by contrast, is arbitrary, as is all superstition. We see order and logic and intelligibility in the universe, and we don’t immediately see where that comes from, so we’ll just arbitrarily pick some kind of magical being or power and give it the credit for having created order and logic and intelligibility. Pastor Feinstein happens to pick the Christian Trinity (even though the Trinity is not, in fact, a logically coherent concept), but Russell, by way of illustration, proposes a magical tiara instead.
Are we at an impasse here? I could say something almost identical and it would still be just as valid as your frame. There exists a magical tiara, and it is because of this tiara that the laws of logic exist. Problem solved: I’ve accounted for logic in just as rigorous a way as you have, at least so far.
Russell’s point is to highlight the fact that, in the debate as it has been presented thus far, Pastor Feinstein has only made superstitious attributions to God: he has arbitrarily claimed that God is the only possible source for reason and intelligibility in the universe, without offering any justification for why this should be so. Russell’s counter-example makes an equally-arbitrary and equally-magical attribution that gives a magic tiara credit instead. Why not? One superstition is as valid as another. But Pastor Feinstein seems to miss the point, or at least he fails to address it.
I must say that your “magical tiara” example proves that you have not understood the nature of the Christian presuppositional argument. A magical tiara is not a precondition of any of our assumptions, but God, as defined biblically, is the total precondition of each of our assumptions.
Obviously, Russell wasn’t saying that the Christian argument is based on presupposing magical tiaras. But the point is, it could be. If you’re going to say “I don’t have to justify my claim because it is a presupposition,” then one presupposition is as valid as another. Why not assume a magic tiara? Or a unicorn? Or a unicorn wearing a magic tiara? All you need to make a superstitious argument is to imagine some kind of magical being or power to attribute things too, and thus far Pastor Feinstein has failed to offer any more justification for his presuppositions than a simple appeal to superstition.
Moving on, we come to what I think is supposed to be Zinger #2: the “problem” of causality.
With that said, I will get into some specific arguments against your position. I told you in my first post that atheism has four big problems. These problems are related to the necessary preconditions of intelligibility. I will deal with at least one of them in this response…
All science rests upon the precondition of the uniformity of nature. Inductive inference takes something that we experienced in the past and then projects it into the future. If you step on a nail and it causes pain today, you assume the same thing would happen at anytime in the future if you stepped on it again.
So far so good. What he calls “the uniformity of nature” is really just as aspect of the necessarily-true condition that reality is consistent with itself, with or without any deities. An atheistic universe, therefore, would supply the preconditions needed in order for science to work. So how is this a problem for atheism, precisely?
If you are serious about this debate, then you should agree with everything that was stated in the previous paragraph. I will soon explain why this is a problem for you.
Oy, again with the promises? For somebody with such allegedly killer arguments, he certainly is shy about letting any of them get out where the rest of us can see them! Let’s read on. Hmm, not in the longish paragraph that starts with the lines above. Not in the next one either… Oh, here we go. Get ready for the zinger, folks.
So here is my question to you. Can you, the materialistic atheist, from your own worldview/presuppositions assume the uniformity of nature to be true? Russell, you cannot dismiss this question as being irrelevant. It is totally relevant. Your fundamental assumption is that the universe is governed by random chance. How in the world can randomness account for uniformity? They are antonyms!
That’s it? The killer argument is just that, if you make the Christian assumption that a universe without God would be “random” in some sense that involved the laws of nature not being consistent, then the laws of nature would not be consistent? This is like going to see a man wrestle a tiger, and finding a guy punching a piece of paper with the word “TIGER” scrawled across it. In crayon.
Notice the “dilemma” he proposes here. “Can you, the materialistic atheist…assume the uniformity of nature to be true?” It’s a trick question, because we’re not just assuming what he calls “the uniformity of nature,” we’re actually verifying it, in two ways, both of which Pastor Feinstein agrees are valid. The first way is by observation: nobody has a list of what the laws of nature are, we simply infer them based on what we observe in nature. But the second way is by reason: it is necessarily true that reality is consistent with itself. When we observe the laws of nature, we are observing some of the many ways that reality is self-consistent. But whether we call it uniformity or consistency, it is the manifestation of a property that must necessarily be a property of reality itself, with or without any gods.
In other words, it’s not a question of atheists assuming that reality is consistent with itself. The order, “uniformity” and self-consistency of reality are things that must necessarily be true, whether or not any gods exist. There is nothing here to cause the atheist any inconvenience whatsoever. The only reason Pastor Feinstein thinks there’s a conflict is because he has chosen to assume that all order and intelligibility in the universe come from God alone, and therefore he is arbitrarily defining “atheistic universe” as meaning one in which all order and intelligibility are absent. This is a purely contrived and manufactured “dilemma” that requires Christian presuppositions in order to even declare what the problem is supposed to be!
We’ll skip over most of Pastor Feinstein’s subsequent guess-I-showed-you gloating to have a look at one last argument for this week:
Let’s take your presupposition of random chance mixed with 14 billion years of time, and see if it accounts for uniformity, predication, causality, etc. It can’t because by the very definition of random, we can’t have a real world that is predictable. So you either A) have to assume the universe isn’t random, or B) you have to admit that your position is irrational, but you are committed to it anyway.
Notice how he has things completely backwards. The self-consistency of reality is an inherent property of reality itself, and not something that we would expect to see emerging over the course of the universe’s 14 billion year history. So why is he even looking for it there? My guess is that he really knows better than that, but he reeeeeeally wants to get some young-earth creationist zingers into the argument too.
But he makes the same mistake here that he does above, assuming that all order and predictability come only from God, and therefore a godless universe would have to be “random” in some sense that involved the complete absence of order and predictability. In essence his in-your-face “takedown” of atheistic materialism boils down to being nothing more than a tendentious failure/refusal to understand what science and materialism are really saying about the undirected, non-superstitious order we see in the real world. No doubt Pastor Feinstein’s zingers play really well among people who embrace the same ignorant notions as he does, but it’s hardly the dramatic overthrow of atheism he’s been billing it as.