A sword with no hilt

(Text: “Debating an Atheist — Round Four“, Soli Deo Gloria, August 3, 2012)

Here’s something a bit unusual. I’m going to start this week’s discussion by agreeing that Pastor Feinstein has a point with some validity to it. I think it’s based more on a misunderstanding between himself and Russell, but he does correctly summarize a legitimate logical error. He quotes Russell as saying the following:

I don’t see any compelling reason to accept your premise that the existence of consistency depends on the existence of an absolute, trinitarian, universe-ruling God.  And if I were to somehow accept that consistency depends on this, we still would be no closer to justifying the claim that this God exists.”

Pastor Feinstein correctly points out that if A is necessary for B, then B cannot be true unless A is true also. Thus, if God were indeed necessary in order for the universe to exist, the existence of the universe would be sufficient to demonstrate the existence of God. Conversely, of course, if the universe exists and God does not, then that proves that God is not, in fact, necessary. I think that Russell’s point is more in line with the latter, i.e. that if God does not exist, then He cannot be necessary, especially given the flimsy and superstitious arguments that Pastor Feinstein provided as justification for the claim that God is necessary. Still, from a strictly technical standpoint, Pastor Feinstein is correct in objecting that you cannot logically accept the premises and then reject the conclusion, and that’s worth mentioning, not the least because of its rarity.

For the rest of his discussion, though, he wields logic like a sword with no hilt, heedless of the wounds he is inflicting on himself.

For example, he tries to defend himself against the charge of arbitrariness by insisting that the axiomatic principles of logic are also arbitrary.

You appeal to the Axiomatic Theory of Truth and claim it is not arbitrary, but your entire basis is that it is an established principle of philosophy. Established by whom? On what grounds? It is not wrong to ask you, or the entire field of philosophy to justify this theory of truth… The Axiomatic Theory of Truth is itself contingent rather than necessary given that it is rule that is caused (by a mind), determined (by reality), and sustained (by a uniform universe). Furthermore, it is dependent upon other theories of truth such as the Correspondence Theory, Coherence Theory, Pragmatic Theory, and Semantic Theory. Each of these must exist, but then again finite human epistemology could never justify any of them.

Like I mentioned before, superstitious thinking has a terribly toxic effect on your ability to reason clearly, and here we see several ways in which Pastor Feinstein is confusing himself in order to avoid recognizing some pretty fundamental truths. He starts by substituting what he calls “the Axiomatic Theory of Truth” for the axioms themselves. That’s a key substitution, because the laws of logic themselves are indeed axiomatic—they’re true because it is logically impossible for them to be false. Human theories about logic, however, can be false, and Pastor Feinstein gives us a good example right here, with his theory that the laws of logic must be caused by a mind. That’s obviously false, because if we imagine a mind capable of creating logic, that mind itself would need to be logical, which would mean that the laws of logic already existed and thus the mind could not cause them.

He also contradicts himself by offering a finite human epistemology which he says justifies “Correspondence Theory, Coherence Theory, Pragmatic Theory, and Semantic Theory,” and then declaring that finite human epistemology can never justify any of them. What he means, of course, is that it’s not possible when atheists do it, but it’s perfectly possible when believers do. His whole argument for God as a necessary being is an argument based on the idea that humans can, and must, justify the existence of logical axioms by (superstitiously) attributing them to God. But apart from the superstition, his whole argument depends on the truth of the axioms of logic. To the extent that he can create doubts about the validity of Russell’s logical axioms, he also invalidates his own conclusion that God is logically necessary. If logic itself isn’t necessarily reliable, then God isn’t necessarily the source of logic, and if He’s not necessary, then the existence of logic does not prove that God exists.

Think for a moment what it would mean if the laws of logic were arbitrarily created rather than being axiomatic. God, we suppose, could say that a certain premise leads to a certain conclusion, but since there’s no underlying, axiomatic, logical reality behind His declaration, it’s no different from Mitt Romney saying that the government will have more money if it collects fewer taxes. You can arbitrarily associate premise A with conclusion B, but if there’s no material reality underlying your claim, if there’s not an actual, objective relationship between the two, then it’s essentially meaningless. Sure, you can claim that if logic exists, then God must necessarily exist, but if there are no logical axioms to establish a materially real connection between the two, then it’s an empty claim. Indeed, without axiomatic laws of logic, nobody‘s arguments are genuinely valid, not even God’s (if there were a god).

Furthermore, I would only be guilty of arbitrariness if I did not justify the existence of God as the necessary presupposition of inductive inference. Once again, I refer you to the discussion of contingent versus necessary. If something contingent exists, then by default it is required that something necessary exists. Thus, my proposition is not arbitrary.

Referring to his discussion of contingent vs. necessary, we see that Pastor Feinstein repeatedly made arbitrary designations as to what was contingent and what was necessary, often reversing the fundamental dependencies in order to arrive at the superstitious conclusion that a wise, rational, all-knowing God had to create a number of fundamental principles on which the existence of wisdom, reason, and knowledge all depend. A less-arbitrary consideration of the truth would lead to the conclusion that these fundamental principles are the real “necessary being” upon which all else, including any gods, would have to be contingent. But if the gods themselves are contingent upon the same axiomatic principles as logic and reason and “uniformity,” then the gods are not necessary, and the axiomatic principles, being truly and literally necessary, are their own justification.

Do we need more documentation of the arbitrary nature of Pastor Feinstein’s argument?

It is also ironic that you brought up Occam’s Razor to disprove my position, when the man who provided the verbiage of it was a Christian. That is neither here nor there, but I do find it ironic. Your entire statement concerning it seemed to miss the entire point about necessary versus contingent. The universe cannot be uncaused because it carries the attributes that belong to a contingent object. God, by definition, has to be uncaused because He is the necessary being. So your application of Occam’s Razor entirely fails.

Notice, “God, by definition, has to be uncaused because He is the necessary being.” It’s not that God’s nature is free from any attribute that would be contingent on something other than Himself. He has lots of contingent attributes, which a truly necessary being cannot have. But that’s not a problem because we just define God as being the necessary being, and then accuse our opponent of being arbitrary. Point for Slytherin!

And of course, if you’re going to wield your sword by the blade, what better target to take a swing at than geology and evolution?

Furthermore, we are not neutral when interpreting the geological record and the fossil record. So how do we determine who’s interpretation corresponds more with reality? By assuming uniformitarianism and punctuated equilibrium? Or by assuming catastrophism and special creation? Both sets of assumptions are difficult to falsify in a science lab, and so once again we have to start comparing presuppositions and leaning back on the preconditions of intelligibility.

Pastor Feinstein’s approach to science is based on two things: believing what people tell you, and believing that everything is fundamentally intentional. Or, to use a couple shorter terms, on gullibility and superstition. Since Christians reach their conclusions by just believing whatever the ancient stories tell them, they assume that scientists also reach their conclusions just by believing what evolutionists tell them. Neither party is neutral, so you can’t trust either one, and you have to just decide who you want to believe, and your choice is just as valid as anyone else’s. It doesn’t occur to Pastor Feinstein that we don’t have to just take people’s word for it, and that we can continually compare our conclusions to the infallible standard of objective reality in order to refine our understanding and reach a coherent set of answers that corresponds to reality. It’s just a question of putting your faith in what men say, and men are fallible, so believe what you want.

Given this sort of worldview, the ad hominem argument seems almost appropriate.

Just prior to your final summary, you wrote of my apparent obsession concerning smoke and mirrors and traps. I am not insecure in this as you claimed, but instead I am attempting to clarify for our readers that this is what atheists do. They shroud their attempts to arbitrarily take their positions for granted in academic vernacular. It takes a clever reader to spot it out.

Yes, only the foolish and incompetent would think the emperor was naked, but you, clever reader, can see what wonderful fabrics have gone into the making of his new clothes.

Well, this is getting long, so let’s wrap up here.

To conclude this, I would like to quickly address the scorecard at this point. Apparently you are under the impression that I am the only one who needs to prove my case, otherwise I lost the debate.

Well, yes, Pastor Feinstein is claiming that a Trinitarian Christian God is “necessary,” and that atheism is impossible. That’s his case, and to the degree that he fails to eliminate all possibility of God’s non-existence, he has indeed failed to meet his own self-selected criteria for winning. Whether or not Russell builds a satisfactory counter-claim, Pastor Feinstein has come nowhere near building any kind of rational, non-superstitious argument that renders atheism obsolete, and in fact much of his argument serves to demonstrate a certain fundamental incoherence and self-refutation from within the Christian understanding of God itself. And though he explicitly addresses his next remark to Randall, there seems to be more than just a bit of autobiographical tone in his pouty complaint.

I guess in a world where you get to take things for granted and be arbitrary, you can also set arbitrary rules that make you the victor even if you truly lost.

Amen, brother. Amen.

11 Responses to “A sword with no hilt”

  1. David Evans Says:

    “By assuming uniformitarianism and punctuated equilibrium? Or by assuming catastrophism and special creation?”

    That’s really bad. The geological record clearly shows long periods of uniform deposition punctuated by global and local catastrophes. There is no need to assume one or the other. The fossil record shows enough transitional species that, if God created each species separately, he must have taken great care to conceal the fact. Not to mention the DNA evidence and the evidence from geographical distribution of species and fossils. One would almost think that Feinstein didn’t care about evidence at all.

    • Naked Bunny with a Whip Says:

      Pastor Feinstein not only doesn’t care about evidence, he’s actively insulting the researchers — yes, many of whom were Christians — who used the hard, dirty evidence to conclude the reality of uniformitarianism by claiming they simply started with the assumption, arbitrarily.

      Feinstein twists the evidence and logic itself to conform to his arbitrary agenda, then projects his duplicitous behavior onto those who disagree with him.

      • aaron Says:

        It would be curious how he bothers to mention that Occam was Christian, except that it feeds right into the veneration of authority that fuels his worldview. Hate to break it to him, but holding one stupid idea doesn’t invalidate any other good ideas that might spring from the same brain.

  2. Skepticali Says:

    I understood Russell’s hypothetical acceptance of the trinitarian God as meaning to point out that a general claim of this God’s existence is still not justified, regardless of human agreement on the premise. He emphasizes the words “premise” and “justifying” in his post, an emphasis that is missed in the Pastor’s citation.

    Regardless of our third-party interpretations of Russell’s attitude about logic, the Pastor repeats his strategy of moving further from justifying the claim of God’s existence, by  claiming that Russell “could care less about logic, consistency, and necessity”. This was an odd – an unwarranted – conflation. “Consistency” is very much cared about, but its source is still in contention. And of course Russell doesn’t care about “necessity” in the way that the Pastor’s does – he stated later in his third pot that “God can’t be a necessary conclusion as far as I’m concerned”. Pretty unambiguous what his attitude is here.

    Throughout this series, I kept feeling the need to use sentence diagrams (anyone remember those?) in order to simply understand individual sentences that the Pastor wrote. Then, take the deciphered sentences and lay them out in an argument map to see what he’s getting at. If his goal is to convince people of his point of view, he’s pretty crappy communicator. If his goal is to confuse everyone, then he’s a world-class confuserator. 

  3. Sines Says:

    I don’t know how much more of this I can read. Feinstein is almost as annoyingly smug as Craig. Every time this man puts his fingers to the keyboard and isn’t punched in the face is a crime.

    And to those who would scorn me for my desire to inflict violence upon those who disagree with me, at least I don’t think that such undesirable characteristics are part of the ‘necessary’ source of all things.

  4. Skepticali Says:

    @Sines – yes, the guy is an insufferable ass. Read his “Final Reflections” post that he published after the debate was over. Talk about a superiority complex! http://sovereignway.blogspot.com/2012/10/debating-atheist-my-closing-comments.html

    As an aside to all, I found the “Presuppositional Procedure” by Bahnsen here: http://www.graceonlinelibrary.org/apologetics/presuppositionalism/presuppositional-procedure-by-dr-greg-bahnsen

    Now I can see where the Pastor’s nuttiness stems from!

  5. random lurker Says:

    So, I’ve got a question about this contingency stuff. Isn’t a being’s status as “non-contingent” caused/sustained/determined by its contingency relationships with other beings? Or, perhaps another way to say that would be that a being can only be non-contingent (or contingent) if there is some sort of contingency-graph or space in which these relationships can exist. Feinstein seems to think that it’s an essential quality of god that he’s the root node in the graph, but then doesn’t god have to be contingent on the graph? Worse, if you then claim that the graph is non-contingent, does that same argument work on the graph itself? I guess I’m wondering if the non-contingent category can have any beings in it at all.

  6. Francois Tremblay Says:

    I kinda disagree with the first point. Even if we conceive of God as being necessary for consistency, that does not mean God exists, but rather that we can’t make sense of consistency without appealing to this God concept. It would be an epistemic issue, not an ontological issue. The only way to relate the two would be to have a coherent account of God and demonstrate how God causes consistency to exist, which of course is impossible.

  7. Mark Says:

    When we see that something has been created we know that it has a creator. This is always true except when we look at the universe. Really? If that made any sense to me I would respond.. But it doesn’t so I won’t. I do know that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father, but by Him. God Bless

    • Deacon Duncan Says:

      Hi Mark, sorry I missed your comment. I haven’t been maintaining this blog for a while. I did want to point out a couple of mistakes you make in your comment, though. First of all, the reason “everything created has a creator” is because you are assuming the existence of the creator just by declaring that something was created. That tells us nothing, though, about what was and was not created. As it happens, you are mistaken about the universe having been created. As far as we can determine, the universe has existed for all of time. That means there was never a time when the universe did not exist, and therefore no opportunity for anyone or anything to create it. You can’t create what already exists, and the universe has existed for all of time, therefore the universe has not been created.

      You might have misunderstood the significance of the Big Bang and the fact that time itself appears to have a “beginning.” This is somewhat confusing to most folks, because in our experience, when something has a beginning, that means there was a time when it did not exist, and then at a certain point in time it came into existence, and then after that point it time it continued to exist for at least some significant period. Obviously, you can’t have “a point in time” if time itself does not exist, so there has never been a time when time did not exist. What scientists have found is that time appears to have a minimum value. You can only go back in time to a certain point, and then there’s no farther back that you can go. It’s like going to the north pole: once you get there, you can’t go any farther north. It’s not that there’s a wall there, or a chasm, or a force field, or some other obstacle. It’s just that there’s no “farther north” left to get to.

      Time is like that. You can go back to a certain point (and the universe goes all the way back to that point), and then there’s no farther back you can go. No “In the beginning” for a Creator to think about what He’d like the universe to look like, no time for any deity or deities to say, “Let there be light” or to create any heavens and earth that didn’t already exist, nothing. It’s not that there’s a barrier there, or a wall, or a force field that an omnipotent God could force His way thru. It’s that there’s no “further back in time” for Him to get to. And thus, no God could create the universe, because there’s never any time when it doesn’t already exist.

      Thanks for writing.

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