Where people come from

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

In last week’s post, we looked at how Pastor Stephen Feinstein took Russell Glasser’s “magical tiara” example and tried to debunk it. Saying that all logic and order in the universe are due to a magical tiara is nothing like saying all logic and order are due to God. Because, well, a tiara is different from a god, or something.

That argument doesn’t really do the job, so he’s going to try again, from a different angle.

A magical tiara is not sovereign or intelligent. Nor is it personal. Furthermore, it is not a unity of plurality. In the universe we see persons and non-persons (e.g. a tree). We have seen persons come from other persons, but we have never seen persons come from non-persons. Given that we are in a universe that is governed by causality rather than randomness, what are we to assume based on our observations and abilities of deduction? Persons came from non-persons? Life came from non-life, etc.? Given that these things have not been observed even under the great conditions of the earth as it is now, would it not be arbitrary to assume that it happened in such a way?

Who’s the uniformitarian now, eh?

As I’ve pointed out before, the main ingredient in Pastor Feinstein’s presuppositional apologetics appears to be superstition: you see some real world phenomenon whose origin you do not understand, and so you attribute it to an arbitrarily-chosen, magical, invisible person consistent with your personal beliefs, in the absence of any verifiable, plausible, non-magical connection between the invisible person and the thing you’re trying to explain. Take away the superstition, and you take away the heart of presuppositionalism.

But there’s another factor here as well, a satisfying, intuitive, and reassuring assumption about the nature of personhood. Persons are magic, you see. They can only come from other persons, and therefore at the very beginning of the chain of causality, there has to be a person. It’s an argument that is simple, naïve, and flattering—a real crowd-pleaser, but of course badly flawed.

Let’s start with the most obvious flaw: where people come from. We have seen persons come from persons, but how? By physical, sexual reproduction. We have never seen one person make another person just by saying some magic words. Persons come from other persons the same way bears come from other bears and oak trees come from other oak trees. So where did people come from? The Father having sex with the Son? Kinky.

Let’s suppose, though, that the first Persons had some way of making people without having sex with each other. Suppose, for example, they start with a single cell, and let it grow, and gradually add to it whatever it takes to form a person. You know, like we see in evolution and gestation. What then becomes of Pastor Feinstein’s logic? If persons can come into existence by some means other than persons having sex together, do we still need to assume that only a person can employ this other method? I’m trying not to be superstitious here. If we only see new things come into existence from earlier things of the same kind, does that necessarily mean there must be some original uncreated thing of the same kind? If so, we need to assume not only the existence of a personal god, but the existence of a bear god and an oak god as well. Not a good line of reasoning.

What is a person, anyway? Is it something that has human DNA? Hair has human DNA, while God supposedly does not. Yet God supposedly is a person, while human hairs are not. So is a person a living organism with two arms, two legs, an opposable thumb, and so on? Amputees are persons, lemurs are not. Is a person, therefore, whatever comes from other persons? No, placentas are not persons, and there are other abnormalities that also come out of the human womb that are not persons. And contrariwise, some persons are born with birth defects that are also abnormal, yet without preventing them from being persons.

Ironically, God Himself can help us out here, because when we talk about God being a person, we’re unconsciously separating out what it means to be a person from what it means to be a physical member of species Homo sapiens. God, as a supposed person, has none of the physical attributes we might associate with a human person, like any particular DNA, or body shape, or brain cells. What, then, does His supposed personhood consist of?

The answer: His mind, including His will, His emotions, His perceptions and memories, and so on. By declaring to us that God is a person, Pastor Feinstein is declaring to us that personhood is something distinctly different from the physical body, because God doesn’t have a physical body (even if you count the Incarnation, which according to the story didn’t happen until after God had already been a person for a very long time).

That means that Pastor Feinstein is not telling us the truth about where persons come from, because personhood is something we do not see emerging until after the baby is born. We see rudimentary stimulus-response reactions such as can be observed in a wide range of non-person species, and we can watch as the infant develops mental cognition and emotion and perception and memory. We see the baby become a person, and we frequently classify them as already persons in anticipation of what they will eventually become, but the actual personhood, the actual mind and thought and will and so on, are qualities that emerge over the course of a few years.

The scientifically-accurate equivalent to Pastor Feinstein’s statement, therefore, is that we see persons initiate a biological process that assembles non-personal elements into a structure with no mind, will, perception, memory, or any other attribute of personhood, and then this non-person develops biologically until its neural infrastructure is sufficiently well-developed to allow a new person to emerge. Where Pastor Feinstein declares that we never see a person come from a non-person, the actual fact is that every person we see has emerged from what was originally a non-person—a biological structure without mind, will, or perception. In the early stages of human life, the things that, say, the zygote has are things that are not required for personhood (since God is not supposed to have them) and the things that are required for personhood are things that the zygote does not have. Persons, all persons, come from non-persons.

There’s lots more that could be said about Pastor Feinstein’s argument, like the fact that in the 1950′s nobody had seen a man walk on the moon, or the fact that we do see the emergence of intelligent life in the geological and archeological strata. I’m going to stop short, though, and put on my boots, because it’s about to get deep around here.

I am not sure how familiar you are with Thomas Aquinas’ Cosmological Argument. By the way, the basic junior college dismissal of it doesn’t count. Have you studied the 10-step argument as outlined in Summa Theologica I, Question 2, Article 3? Just for the purpose of classical education, I recommend it. Although I reject the semi-pelagian presuppositions of the classical argumentation for the existence of God, Aquinas actually gets somewhere good between the 5th and 6th step. He previously demonstrated, philosophically speaking, that only two types of beings can exist: necessary and contingent. Contingent beings are caused, sustained, and determined by factors outside of themselves, and thus when we look around at all things in the universe, they are contingent since they fit into those parameters. A necessary being, then, could not be contingent and therefore would be uncaused, unsustained, and undetermined by anything else outside of itself. This means that the universe cannot be the necessary being since it caused, sustained, and determined. If you try to ascribe this to randomness, you are going to lose that point in a moment.

Everybody duck, he’s dropped the Big TA bomb!

As an aside, one of the problems with indoctrination as opposed to education is that those who have been indoctrinated have to do a great deal of work in order to master the doctrines they’re being indoctrinated in, and they have a tendency to equate the amount of work with the accuracy and importance of the material they’ve studied. Consequently they tend to feel superior to anyone who has not expended the same amount of time and effort on the doctrines, even when those doctrines are now known to be flawed, superstitious, and inconsequential.

Another problem is that sometimes the terminology can be confusing, such as when the philosopher uses “being” to refer to “existing,” only to have his students use “being” as a synonym for “person.” We can see Pastor Feinstein preparing to fall (if not outright leap) into this trap in the paragraph above. And that’s a big mistake, because no person could possibly be the necessary be-ing that philosophers refer to.

All persons are contingent “beings” (i.e. existences), because their existence is preconditioned on a greater reality which imposes certain specific types of order on the nature of real things. For example, one of the characteristics of reality is that real things must be the same as themselves. You can’t have real persons without this law of identity, because without identity, you have nothing to apply the quality of personhood to—and even then, personhood would not be the same as personhood, so the person would not be a person even if you did apply personhood to it. Ergh.

The necessary being (meaning the necessary be-ing) is the greater reality itself. Reality is the one thing about which it is necessarily true that it is not caused, sustained or determined by anything outside itself, since that would mean reality was dependent on something that was not real. Since the necessary being is reality itself, it follows that the existence of any and every person is contingent. Miss this important distinction, and you could end up making grandiose, but futile, declarations like this:

The point in all of this is that our very personhood is contingent upon the necessary person. The necessary person then cannot be part of the physical universe since the physical universe is contingent. This is why I said in my first post that God is distinct from creation. God is affected by none of the same temporal limitations that we are bound by. He is uncaused, timeless, unsustained, and undetermined. So the foolish argument of, “If God made us, then who made God,” is a terribly ridiculous argument since it tries to reduce God to a contingent being, thus missing the point of the entire argument. Transcendental logic demonstrates that a necessary being is just that, necessary! Thus, the precondition of a uniform universe of nearly innumerable contingencies is the singular transcendent necessary being, who sovereignly controls the entire universe and purposefully causes and sustains predictability (Genesis 8:22).

That is really a strikingly triumphant and heroic pose, and it’s a shame he’s wasting it on a simple confusion between being and person. All that work to try and build up the Christian God as a necessary truth, and all for naught, because of a simple, superstitious mistake right at the very beginning. A few mistakes, in fact, because he’s also still making the assumption that persons cannot come from non-persons, even though virtually everything we see originally came from something that was not the thing we see today. Bears originally came from something that was not a bear, oaks came from something that was not an oak, oceans came from something that was not an ocean, and so on. That’s true even by Pastor Feinstein’s theology. So to assume that persons cannot come from non-persons is contrary to everything else we see.

It gets better, though: from the lofty heights of Mount Aquinas, with the stone tablets of transcendental logic in his hands, Pastor Feinstein is going to declare to us how this “necessary Person” also has to be a Trinity. Not a Quadrinity or a Quintinity, a Trinity. In the interests of giving this argument my full attention, though, I think I’m going to call a halt right here for now, and save the Trinity for next week. Stay Tuned.

14 Responses to “Where people come from”

  1. Rain Says:

    “…Pastor Feinstein is going to declare to us how this ‘necessary Person’ also has to be a Trinity.”

    Someone else could have figured out that it has to be a trinity and then still invented the Jesus myth based upon that. So, like Christopher Hitchens used to say, the good pastor still has all of his work ahead of him. Or all of Aquinas’ work ahead of him. Good luck pastor, or Aquinas, or as the case may be.

  2. french engineer Says:

    The thing is, reading it the first time, I felt that when Feinstein used the word “person”, he was spelling it S-O-U-L. He just did not want to open himself to the simple, usual question “what is a soul and can you prove it exists?”. After all his dithering about “smoke and mirrors”, that is what convinced me that Feinstein wasn’t being an idiot or a pedant – that he was actually actively obfuscating.

  3. Russell Wain Glasser Says:

    Deacon writes:

    “But there’s another factor here as well, a satisfying, intuitive, and reassuring assumption about the nature of personhood. Persons are magic, you see. They can only come from other persons, and therefore at the very beginning of the chain of causality, there has to be a person. It’s an argument that is simple, naïve, and flattering—a real crowd-pleaser, but of course badly flawed.”

    It’s great special pleading, really, when you frame it that way. It would be equally valid to say “As far as we have observed, all people come from things that are not gods. Therefore, by induction, no people come from gods.”

  4. pboyfloyd Says:

    “The Father having sex with the Son?”

    I’m so flabbered, I almost forget to be ghasted!

    And speechless? Right this minute I’m starting a 24,000 word tome, hopefully to be published in sections by ‘Amazed!’ pulp-fiction magazine editors through years to come!
    You don’t know how long and loud I’m willing to crow about how fucking speechless I am!!!

  5. pboyfloyd Says:

    “..and there are other abnormalities that also come out of the human womb that are not persons.”

    Now you’ve done it! Now. YOU’VE. DONE. IT!!!
    Either the walls of reality have come crashing down or I’ve just had a stroke! I can’t get the horrifying picture of these ‘abnormalities’ out of my HEAD!

    Argh!



    Argh!

  6. Alex SL Says:

    One of the problems with indoctrination as opposed to education is that those who have been indoctrinated have to do a great deal of work in order to master the doctrines they’re being indoctrinated in, and they have a tendency to equate the amount of work with the accuracy and importance of the material they’ve studied. Consequently they tend to feel superior to anyone who has not expended the same amount of time and effort on the doctrines, even when those doctrines are now known to be flawed, superstitious, and inconsequential.

    I really wish I could write like that…

  7. David Evans Says:

    “All persons are contingent “beings” (i.e. existences), because their existence is preconditioned on a greater reality which imposes certain specific types of order on the nature of real things. For example, one of the characteristics of reality is that real things must be the same as themselves. You can’t have real persons without this law of identity…”

    I disagree. The law of identity does not impose any order on the nature of real things, because it does not rule out any real possibility. In particular it does not allow some kinds of god and disallow others. I’m sure some old-fashioned scientists thought it ruled out quantum mechanics, because a real thing cannot be both a particle and a wave. They were wrong.

    I tend to regard this and other laws of logic not as limits on what can exist, but as limits on how we can meaningfully talk about what exists.

    I realize that you have been thinking about this for longer than I have. Are there any other writers who take the same view that you do?

    • Deacon Duncan Says:

      The law of identity does not impose any order on the nature of real things, because it does not rule out any real possibility.</blockquote.

      I'm not sure I understand your objection. When a thing is the same as itself, that is surely more ordered than when a thing is never the same as itself. Reality imposes this order on all real things: for any real thing, we can predict that it is the same as itself. There can also be non-real things that are the same as themselves even though they're not real, so this particular form of order is not limited to real things only. But the nature of reality is such that all real things must be the same as themselves, and in the absence of this particular form of order, things like persons could not exist in any meaningful sense of the word.

  8. Peter Moritz Says:

    Why can the universe not be necessary? And not be contingent upn a necessary creator. From physics we know that the early Universe is hidden behind the limits of Planck time and Planck dimension. The Universe it looks like was never created but all the time in existence – just in an unknowable form. So why “create” a necessary bean that does not seem to be necessary at all? Why does the universe need a creator?
    Why, however would a perfect creator (one of the claims of apologists of the religious ilk)need to create anything in the first place? Does this not contradict perfection – the term necessary could be applied to “god” having a need to create, or the desire. Since when does perfection include need, desire, even love, quite human emotions for sure, hinting of the origin of god?

  9. David Evans Says:

    PS

    Also, I’m not clear whether you think any kind of necessary being is possible. If so, and if it couldn’t be a person, what could it be?

    • Deacon Duncan Says:

      Well, if it were merely possible, then it would not be necessary being, by definition. But I’ve been trying to say that self-consistent reality is the necessary being, and I was afraid I was belaboring the point through too-frequent repetition. Necessary being is not being in the sense of a person, it’s be-ing in the sense of that which must exist as a precondition for everything else, without itself being contingent on some more fundamental truth. It seems pretty clear to me, at least, that at such a fundamental level of necessity, we’re dealing with something far more foundational and elemental than a person.

      • keithnoback Says:

        Yes, it would seem to require something we would describe as a property, if anything, rather than an agent, unless…”the precondition of a uniform universe of nearly innumerable contingencies is the singular transcendent necessary being, who sovereignly controls the entire universe and purposefully causes and sustains predictability.” This argument is over – called on account of Idealism.

      • Deacon Duncan Says:

        Of course, as soon as you propose a possible sentient being capable of such things as sovereign control, purpose, and sustaining predictability, you’ve described a being whose nature and existence would be contingent on a number of more fundamental preconditions, which precludes any such entity from being necessary in the sense of a proper necessary being. Thus, the “unless” disposes of itself.


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