Why revelation fails

One of the dogmas underlying Murk’s belief system is the idea that divine revelation is required in order for us to have any knowledge of the truth, as he himself has recently shared.

I have written that to know anything a person must either know everything or someone who does who is good and shares. I cannot make this any simpler.
You cannot have any knowledge unless you are God or trust what He has revealed.

This is a false statement, since I can and do know that I exist, and I cannot be mistaken in this knowledge—if I did not exist there would be no one to make the mistake. Every one of us possesses the ability to know at least some material truth, without any need for divine revelation. But more than this, there are at least three good reasons to conclude that divine revelation is not, in fact, a reliable means of knowing the truth about the real world.

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The agnostic believer

Those who sincerely attempt to reconcile Christianity with fact and reason eventually discover, if they persist, that the Gospel is not consistent with unbiased objective truth, as I can testify from personal experience. The unfortunate believer who encounters this problem has a couple of choices. One choice—the choice I made—would be to allow the true facts of reality to lead me out of the ignorant and superstitious traditions of Bible and Church. Call this the Truth Trumps Traditions choice.

The alternative would have been for me to turn my back on truth, closing my eyes to it and deciding that truth cannot (and should not) be known by man. My own search for truth led me only to the brink of apostasy, and what good is that, right? To stay faithful, I would have to decide that knowledge of the truth must be the enemy of faith, and would need to reject this knowledge as something that all faithful believers should oppose.

Believers who choose this latter path become the world’s most agnostic philosophers, denying that we can know even part of the truth. Faith turns into a kind of communal solipsism, where each believer has only his or her subjective beliefs to cling to, unsupported by any knowable truth, unverified and unverifiable. It’s a worldview founded on dogma, of which the cornerstone is the denial of the idea that real-world truth can be known by any mortal. It’s the ultimate in agnosticism.

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Ultimate authority

Whatever it may sell itself as to believers, presuppositionalism in practice usually boils down to a loose collection of contrived and superficial “gotcha” dialogs in which the entire skeptical worldview ends up “exposed” as self-contradictory and invalid. The catch is that creating this illusion requires that the unbeliever stick to some rigid and narrow constraints on what they’re supposed to say. It’s a schtick that works best with 1-dimensional bad guys, who oppose the hero only to make the hero look good.

Real skeptics don’t talk or think like cartoons, however, so when the presuppositionalist tries to interact with a real live skeptic, they end up floundering around trying to force the conversation back into the canned script. Sometimes they meet unbelievers who haven’t thought much about the topic, and are easily steered, but if the skeptic knows anything at all about philosophy, epistemology, and phenomenology, the result can be a series of exchanges so disjointed they border on the surreal. For example, here’s Murk trying to respond to my observation that religious beliefs are necessarily subjective perceptions rather than verifiable objective fact.

“you’d be walking by proof, not walking by faith.” not true- boils down to ultimate authority – we all have one – what is yours again?

His response seems only tangentially related, if not completely disconnected, from the observation he’s trying to respond to. But that’s because he’s trying to get back to a script in which rationalism is really the vain assumptions of a conceited heart. I didn’t say anything that would support such a conclusion, but that’s beside the point. He’s here to have the scripted conversation from his apologetics texts, no matter how the real-world conversation may be proceeding. [Read more...]

The subjective choices of religion

Our old friend Murk has returned with a reply to a comment on one of my older posts. Rather than let it languish in the past, I’d like to reply to it up front. Let’s start by reconstructing the thread of the conversation so far.

KEVIN: Yeah, murk. Sorry, but I’m not buying it. You see, there’s this little problem you theists have. It’s one of a plethora of choices. You claim that your choice is the correct one. OK, fine. But every single person who believes in the supernatural makes the same claim.

MURK: Let me see if i get this straight – many choice = non-existence? by analogy then since there are many counterfeit moneys there is no real one? the counterfeit is dependent on the real my friend.

DEACON DUNCAN: Not quite. The problem is not just that there are many choices, it’s that all the choices are based on subjective preference, in the absence of any objective means of demonstrating that any of them is actually true. After all, if you had objective proof that any of them were correct, you’d be walking by proof, not walking by faith.

So far so good, eh? Granted, Murk is making a bad analogy with his counterfeit money example, and I didn’t address that specifically. I wanted to focus on the weakness of the theological argument, which is the lack of a “gold standard” against which you can apply the various conflicting theological positions. We know that counterfeit money is fake precisely because there is a real-world standard to compare it to. No similar standard exists for the innumerable, conflicting versions of the story about what god(s) ought to be, and what he/she/it/they expect from us.

Turnabout’s fair play, so Murk wants to pick apart my response and see if he can find any weaknesses in it.

” it’s that all the choices are based on subjective preference,” is this an objective claim? if so by what standard?

My replies are below the fold.

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The problem of purpose

I want to continue looking at the Bad Catholic’s post at Patheos because there’s a lot of interesting stuff there. Like this introduction:

Any philosophy that claims that there exists nothing supernatural cannot grant purpose to suffering.

If some natural, secular purpose could be granted to the man suffering, then his pain would cease to be suffering and begin to be useful pain.

He goes on to compare the young athlete’s muscular aches and pains, endured for the sake of fitness, with the inescapable aches and pains of old age, as an example of useful pain versus pointless suffering. In order to be suffering, he says, suffering “requires the lack of a natural, secular answer.” And by “answer” he means “a good reason”—some overriding benefit good enough to justify the means used to achieve it.

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Five years ago today

Over at Evangelical Realism, I’m taking a break from Justin Martyr due to a time crunch at my day job. To fill in the hole, I’ve reposted one of my earlier encounters with presuppositional apologetics, which didn’t turn out at all the way the apologist had hoped. It’s the first two of a series of back-and-forth exchanges I had with that particular group, but after my second post, they dropped presuppositionalism and tried the “Darwinist conspiracy” tactic instead, so my first two posts ended up being a good, quick, self-contained rebuttal.

How do we know?

Picking up where we left off yesterday, we’ve seen that Pastor Stephen Feinstein would be ill-advised to propose that there are any material preconditions for the universe, “reasonable standards,” and epistemology. That which exists in the same form at all points in time is necessarily uncaused and uncausable, since there’s no point in time where it was not already what it is now, and therefore no opportunity for it to be changed from “non-existent” to “existing.” The laws of physics, the laws of logic and reason, the fundamental material aspects of the space-time continuum, and so on, are all uncreatable and have no material preconditions.

That leaves logical preconditions, i.e. the relationship between A and B that allows us to say B cannot be true if A is false, and thus if B is true then we know A must be true also. Given that there is no possibility that the universe, “reasonable standards” and epistemology could have supernatural causes, can we nevertheless reason our way from B (the universe, reasonable standards, and epistemology) back to some A that must also be true? Can we, in other words, find Pastor Stephen’s logical preconditions for the existence of the universe, reason, and epistemology?

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Causes, creations and preconditions

I’ve been following Russell Glasser’s online discussion with Pastor Stephen Feinstein, in which the latter claims that he can prove that “atheism is untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible.” By mutual agreement, it’s a public discussion between just those two parties, but I can’t resist the temptation to supply a little offside commentary, because it looks like Pastor Stephen has made a misstep already, in only his second post.

It is not good enough for me to say, “Russell, I agree with you that this world is real, that we learn from the senses, that reasonable standards are necessary, and that bald assertion fails to prove anything.” By the way, I agree with you on all of these things, but with one revision. However, I want us to account for these things. What are the necessary preconditions of this universe, as we know it? Why are we able to rely on our senses? What are the necessary preconditions for our senses to be reliable? Why must there be reasonable standards? What are the necessary preconditions for any standards at all that avoids the hopelessness of relativity? Epistemology will help us construct workable lists of what things are necessary in order to make these assumptions of ours a reality. Furthermore, we cannot even take epistemology for granted, but must ask what are the necessary preconditions of it too? And at the end of the day, atheism cannot provide for these necessary preconditions.

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Consistency and perfection

As long as we’re dabbling in a bit of amateur philosophy, I thought I might bring up another notion some of you might find interesting. I spend a lot of time thinking about the principle that truth is consistent with itself, both in the non-contradictory sense and in the cohesive/unified sense, and it has led me to some unexpected conclusions. One of the under-appreciated implications of this self-consistency is that it means we have a faulty conception of what perfection is, for the most part, and I think this is where a lot of Greek philosophy and its derivatives went astray.

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We are infallible

I’ve been thinking lately about presuppositional apologetics, following (among other things) this post on Aron Ra’s blog. I’ve got the beginnings of an approach to addressing presuppositionalism, and just for fun I thought I’d throw out what I’ve got and see what kind of comments it gets. My approach is a bit Pascalesque [EDIT: Cartesian?]: I start with the premise that there is one presupposition we all share (necessarily so) and at least one fact about which we are each absolutely infallible. From these I believe we can build a rational system which will allow us to examine any other presuppositions we might make, and evaluate which of these, if any, are more likely to be correct than the others.

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