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Reply to Stephen Feinstein, round two

This post is part of an ongoing discussion between Russell Glasser and Pastor Stephen Feinstein. Here are all the previous posts in the series.

As before, I’ll be disabling comments in this post, as it is supposed to be a conversation only between the two of us.


Stephen,

I want to take a moment to remind our readers again of the first thing that you said in this discussion.  You promised to make the case that “atheism is untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible.”  That was a pretty bold acceptance of the burden of proof that you took on.  In fact, I’d venture to say that if you don’t start clearly progressing towards making this case, it will be as good as a concession that you’ve lost the debate.

[…]

I’m not saying that you can’t do it, obviously; but after two rounds of posting, you haven’t done much to reach your goal. So far the main thing you’ve done is to casually dismiss every possibility of a common starting point.  I started by proposing what I thought would be fairly uncontroversial common ground: “We both probably agree that the natural world exists in the first place.”  Your response was the following:

“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.”

So… that’s interesting. As I read this statement, you’re not even going to bother from the beginning to grant the premise that there is something rather than nothing, starting at least a few steps short of what philosophers generally see as the most basic of all questions. This seems to put you in an extremely odd position. It’s fine to say that you’re going to “account for” the real world, but unless you unconditionally grant that there is a real world at all, there is obviously nothing to account for.

What do you hope to accomplish by this approach? If you are trying to make some sort of reductio ad absurdam based on this — i.e., by asserting “We can’t assume that the real world exists unless my other presupposition X is true” — then that can’t get you anywhere, as long as you’re following through with your insistence that the real world might not exist at all.  You could perhaps say “The consequences of the world not existing would be ridiculous” but that won’t fly either, because you haven’t granted the premise that we need any kind of logical standards.

With that in mind, here’s the one and only thing you have really bothered to say in defense of your assertion that God exists, after two messages:

Moving on, when you commented on the Biblical definition of God, you then asked me how I plan on justifying any of it since you personally agree with none of it. This too will come as we advance further in the debate, but for now I am going to advance a preliminary argument that will sound absurd to you. Here it goes. The Biblical God must exist, because if He does not exist, then we can know nothing at all. Or let me put it this way. Christianity must be true because without it we lose all intelligibility.

I’ll tell you why I have no difficulty whatsoever rejecting this unwarranted premise. Unless you’re willing to grant that intelligibility does exist, “justifying” the existence of intelligibility is a pointless task.  You’re already launching into a circular case for God, namely: “Unless God exists, then intelligibility cannot exist. And intelligibility must exist, because my logical argument for God’s hand in creating it depends on it.”

I was offering you a way to bypass this circularity by assuming that reality exists and that we need logical standards, but you rejected this.  I, in turn, reject your starting point of God.  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.

It just seems to me that we both ultimately assume that logic is valid, and that the world is real.  However, only one of us is trying to inject the irrelevant and unnecessary assumption of something that hasn’t been observed, namely God, and posit it as an explanation, even though we both grant that there are going to be at least some things in our conversation that may be assumed without explanation.

Why did I frame it this way knowing that you will shake your head at it? Well, it is rather simple. It is the thesis of my argument for the existence of the Biblical God.

“Why do I say this thing? Because it is the thing that I say.” Premise rejected. What next?

From my point of view, the fact that the universe exists is a foundational presupposition that is not difficult for the vast majority of people to accept.  It’s not guaranteed to be true — again, The Matrix was a totally awesome movie — but it’s a good enough starting point for me.  With that in mind, if you’re making an argument that takes the form of “You must accept claim X because otherwise the real world might not exist,” then my conclusion is not “X is true”; it’s “Either X is true, or your claimed logical dependency is false.”  If you propose an X that I have no reason to believe is true yet (i.e., “My God as I have described him exists”) I still need some other reason to believe that X is true. Otherwise, you’d better be prepared to back up your claim by giving me a good reason to drop the assumption that the world exists.  If you can’t, I’m certainly going to be much more willing to assume that the fault lies in your argument than in the universe.

So here’s the situation that we’re in: I proposed a set of ground level assumptions that we might both agree on; you rejected them.  You’ve proposed an assumption of God as a starting point, and I in turn reject that with just as much validity.  Other than the one paragraph that I quoted, you haven’t done much besides brag about the impressive qualities of arguments that you have not made yet.

  • “We must have a battle of epistemology here.”
  • “I am going to effectively refute your positions.”
  • “It is too early in the debate for me to give specifics.”
  • “This too will come as we advance further in the debate.”
  • “I am so convinced of the truthfulness, perspicuity, and infallibility of the Bible and the worldview it presents that I confront your position with such boldness.”
  • “Russell, I will give you good reasons to believe in the God of the Bible and I hope to demonstrate to you that you are the one who believes in atheism for no reason, whereas I have plenty of reason to believe in my God.”

For the last two posts I’ve been waiting for you to say anything of substance, but so far you seem much more interested in patting yourself on the back for things you are about to say.  I hope you will get around to saying them pretty soon.

I’m going to run quickly through some additional minor issues that you raised in your last post, but mostly I consider them distractions from the discussion at hand.

  • Yes, I completely agree that if you watch the show with Ray Comfort on its own, there are some confusing points that require clarification, and some of it may have even come out sounding wrong on our end.  That’s the nature of live TV — you have to say things as they come into your head or you get dead air.  Sometimes that results in statements that are not grammatically correct, and sometimes the choice of wording is misleading.  Now that I have clarified what Matt and I meant, I hope we can move beyond that.
  • For some reason you spent a great many paragraphs explaining extremely elementary concepts such as what a syllogism looks like.  This is trivial to anybody who’s taken an introductory logic class, and I think we can assume that we’ve both had some, so I think it’s safe to say that you don’t need to fill up space with that kind of thing in the future.
  • You still insist on viewing all of atheism as a self-contained ideology. This seems very important to you, but I don’t know why.  I did, after all, grant that this discussion can be about my ideology, which has many of the features that you say it does.  Yet when you say “all atheists have a distinct view of knowledge (e.g. human autonomy; Theravada yoga; etc.)” this strikes me as a pretty vacuous statement.  I don’t have any interest in supporting Theravada yoga myself, so it sounds like what you are saying is, “all atheists have their own individual distinct view of knowledge (which doesn’t include a God).”  Since all atheists are humans, and all humans have their own distinct view of knowledge (including Christians) this is basically true.  But so what? By that reasoning, you could just as easily state that “being a white man” is an ideology, in which case we’re on the same side.

To bring this back to what I’ve been saying, in a nutshell, you’ve claimed that you’re going to prove that God must exist. However, you won’t agree with me that reality exists, and you seem puzzled that I won’t presume that God exists. This obviously can’t go anywhere useful.

So I’ll ask this one more time: In your next post, please do take a minute to start offering some suppositions that you think we can both agree to. If you can’t even take that most basic step of defining your premises in a mutually satisfactory way, then I’m going to have to start concluding that you’re not looking to have a discussion in good faith. As I said before, it’s fine if you just want to preach to the choir; your fellow believers will be happy to go along with you if you want to just assert that your favorite beliefs are true by virtue of presupposition.  But if you have any interest whatsoever in definitively showing me and other atheists that we hold an untenable position, then you’re going to have to give me some motivation to accept your assumptions over mine. If you can’t do that, then by your own prior promises, you will have lost.

Sincerely,
Russell Glasser

Continue to part 3.

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