(Text: “Debating an Atheist — Round Four“, Soli Deo Gloria, August 3, 2012)
Back when I was hosting this blog on my own server (well, a rented one anyway), I noticed the way some of Jesus’ self-professed followers seem to be operating under a curse.
It’s like a scene from an old B-grade black-and white horror flick: Jesus is walking down some dank alleyway in Jerusalem and carelessly bumps into an old gypsy woman, knocking her in the mud and muck, and then thoughtlessly laughing at her misfortune. Her deepset eyes blaze, and she scowls at him. “A curse upon you,” she mutters. “From now on, your followers and supporters will be unable to accuse their critics of any fault or fallacy without being guilty of the same thing themselves.” He, like all B-grade movie heroes, doesn’t take her seriously until her curse starts coming true. Only then does he realize, to his horror, that the curse is inexorable, inescapable, and infallible.
I think that old gypsy woman would cackle with glee if she were to read the material Pastor Feinstein has for us today.
Let’s start with Pastor Feinstein’s video game analogy (or parable, as he calls it).
I do apologize for the length of the parable, but it was necessary to demonstrate why I will not let you simply take your assumptions for granted when I know in advance that your preconditions render your assumptions impossible. I would be a fool if I did that.
Pastor Feinstein tells us that logic itself must have preconditions, and he assumes that the ultimate precondition for logic must be God, because only God could be wise enough to invent logic. If that’s the case, however, then God must be insane, irrational, and illogical. You cannot create something that already exists, so the only way God could create logic would be if He Himself did not already possess any. An insane and irrational God, however, would be too crazy to invent logic. Pastor Feinstein’s preconditions render his assumptions impossible. And logic is just one of the preconditions that would be required in order for a sane, powerful, omniscient deity to exist.
Nevertheless, Pastor Feinstein crows about how thoroughly he has backed Russell into a corner. He even deigns to answer one of Russell’s questions, just for the sake of fair play and not because he needs to or anything.
Of course, I do want to play fair and thus it is important that I answer you on your question, “How do you justify (or account for) the existence of God?” That question makes me wonder if you read my last response closely. There was a reason I spent time on the subject of contingent beings. Only they require presuppositions and preconditions.
Russell not only read Pastor Feinstein’s argument, he understood it so well that he was able to predict pretty much exactly how Pastor Feinstein would respond to his question. He predicted that Pastor Feinstein would reply, “Stupid question. God is not in that category.” And then he explained why this would be an insufficient answer.
This is why the magic tiara comparison is completely apt. As long as you can invoke an entity which doesn’t obey the rules you describe, you can claim to have come up with a plausible (to you) solution to the problem that you claim needs addressing. The selection of a God to fulfill that role is completely arbitrary. The magic tiara has always existed; it sits outside the universe; its one and only function is to create the laws of logic, and its existence has been irrelevant since then.
Or, if you think talking about a useless stand-in object like a tiara is foolish and a waste of time, you can just accept my proposal that the laws of logic are the axiomatic concepts which need no explanation, and we can proceed from there like sensible people.
There was a reason why Russell took the time to explain his magic tiara analogy, and an old gypsy woman might wonder whether Pastor Feinstein read Russell’s subsequent discussion closely. Russell’s objections were not based on failing to understand that Christians would put God in a different category (necessary being). Quite the contrary in fact. But Pastor Feinstein addresses Russell’s question by explaining, at some length, that he puts God in a different category. Not only does he fail to address the point Russell is making, but seems not to have noticed that it was even there. Instead, he gloats some more.
You are trapped by this answer. There is nothing that you can legitimately say to it, other than your accusation that I am inventing a new category that doesn’t follow the rules of every other category. Well, no, not exactly. I am inventing nothing. … I am agreeing with you that the world is real, but I am taking it one step further and I am saying since the real world is contingent, by its very definition it requires a necessary being that is categorically different in order to account for it. And by the very nature of that “necessary” category, the chain stops there requiring no other presuppositions or preconditions, for by definition these would be impossible to apply to that which is “necessary.”
There’s a lot of what he says here that’s almost correct. He’s arguing his way down towards Russell’s axioms, but before he gets there, he’s injecting his own superstitious presuppositions about the ultimate necessary being, as a person of some sort. Worse yet, he’s arguing that the real world—reality itself—is contingent on some necessary being in some different category. That’s a triumph of superstitious thinking, but in fact things that are categorically different from reality are things like lies, myths, delusions, and fiction. And personally, it doesn’t strike me as plausible to claim that reality was invented by a fiction. It is reality itself which must be the ontological entity that is “uncaused, unsustained, and undetermined by anything outside itself,” since whatever lies outside of reality is false.
So the real issue here is that Russell is using axioms in roughly the same role as Pastor Feinstein is using “necessary being”—that is, as a category of things that are self-existent and need no further justification—and Pastor Feinstein is simply assuming that axioms do have preconditions and do need to be justified. Hence Russell’s observation that a magical tiara could do just as well as the presumed source for logical axioms. If we’re going to be superstitious about where logic “comes from,” we might as well make up anything we like.
You could imagine, for instance, a tiara that was one tiara made of many silver wires woven together, thus accounting for Pastor Feinstein’s spurious rendition of the one-and-many problem, and you could even give it credit for having actual thoughts (since magical objects do sometimes have actual personalities, according to the stories). Like Russell said, the choice of God as the “necessary being” is completely arbitrary, since you’re arriving at it by superstition rather than by following through on the logical implications of the facts. But it doesn’t look as though Pastor Feinstein realizes that this is where the issue lies. And so the gypsy strikes again.
The fact that you continued to bring up the magical tiara causes me to think that you either a) did not understand this or b) you simply ignored the point altogether and smuggled the tiara back into the debate hoping that it still satisfies your camp.
*evil cackling in the distance*
You failed to demonstrate that a magical tiara could be “necessary.” Through the one and many problems, the existence of persons, the laws of logic, etc. I did in fact demonstrate that the God of the Bible can be and is this necessary being.
In fact, all that’s required to be ontologically necessary is for the necessary being to be the source of all contingent beings, and to be itself uncaused, unsustained, and undetermined by anything outside itself. A magical tiara could have these qualities in exactly the same fashion as God gets them: by people assuming it/He would have them. Pastor Feinstein is the one who failed to demonstrate that the God of the Bible can be and is this necessary being. As we saw earlier, his arguments were a mishmash of appeals to animism, superstition, polytheism, and dogma. Just scratch the surface, and you start finding inconsistencies, like the fact that God can’t cause logic to exist unless logic is absent from His own nature.
Pastor Feinstein does at least attempt to address Russell’s argument above.
I find it ironic that after the magical tiara nonsense you then made the statement, “… you can just accept my proposal that the laws of logic are the axiomatic concepts which need no explanation, and we can proceed from there like sensible people.” Russell, I do not think you are getting it yet. … I agree with you that logic exists, but I disagree with the notion that it needs no explanation. This brings us right back to the video game parable. … I can see why the atheist is so fearful to talk about preconditions. Your worldview is hopeless to account for logic and inductive inference, and so you blindly ask the Christian to take it for granted like you do. Not a chance, for I have you right where I want you.
The reason why Pastor Feinstein thinks atheism is “hopeless to account for logic and inductive inference” is because he is assuming (a) that the existence of logic needs to be accounted for, and (b) that the only possible explanation is for it to be intentionally created by a divine person more or less identical to the Christian God. His own presuppositionalism requires either that a contingent property (logic) is part of God’s nature, thus making God Himself a contingent being, or else that God, as a necessary being, possesses no logic whatsoever and would thus be too insane to create anything as ordered and self-consistent as logic. Either way his worldview is hopeless to account for the origin of logic. So cue the gypsy again.
The irony in your statement is that you assume that if I agree with you, only then am I sensible and only then can we proceed. Once again, this is you trying to set the rules of the game that allow you the necessary handicap needed just to survive.
It’s fascinating how often you can find the flaw in a believer’s argument just by looking at what they accuse the atheist of doing wrong. It’s not just that they accuse the atheist of doing things wrong in general, but surprisingly often they accuse the atheist of doing the specific wrong thing that they themselves are doing right now. Pastor Feinstein accuses Russell of trying to smuggle atheistic assumptions into the debate because Russell is not granting Pastor Feinstein’s assumption that axioms need to be justified.
The sensible thing for Pastor Feinstein to do would be to either admit that he’s making an arbitrary assumption about axioms needing to be justified, or else to show some kind of argument that would justify drawing the conclusion that axioms need to be justified. But by simply assuming that axioms need to be justified, and worse, that Russell himself has to make the same assumption, Pastor Feinstein is doing exactly the thing he’s accusing Russell of doing.
From here we go off on another anti-evolution riff, trying to show how evolution really disproves atheism, but we don’t have the time and space for that now, so we’ll pick that up next week. Stay tuned.