This post is part of an ongoing discussion between Russell Glasser and Pastor Stephen Feinstein. Here are all the previous posts in the series.
This is the end of the Stephen Feinstein series. Comments will be open at the end of this post, so please feel free to provide your thoughts and feedback on this post and the entire series.
“If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, ‘How about the tortoise?’ the Indian said, ‘Suppose we change the subject.'” –Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian
“Wherever I traveled and met believers, I heard the same responses to my simple question of how they knew that their god or gods existed. The faces, dress, accents, and temples varied greatly, but the reasons for belief did not. The fact that all these people around the world believe in contradictory gods and conflicting religions means that some of them must be wrong. They cannot all be correct. And if some people can be sincerely mistaken on this, all can be.” –Guy P. Harrison, author of 50 Reasons People Give for Believing In a God and other skeptic-themed books
Since this post serves as my closing statement, I’m going to take this opportunity to offer a bird’s eye view of the whole conversation, and the concept of presuppositional apologetics in general, before I get into the details of Stephen’s final post.
In religious apologetics, the more things change, the more they stay the same. 24 centuries ago in Laws, Plato speculated that since some things move, there must be a first mover in the universe that set everything else in motion. He concluded, “And of the seasons, stars, moon, and year, in like manner, it may be affirmed that the soul or souls from which they derive their excellence are divine; and without insisting on the manner of their working, no one can deny that all things are full of Gods. No one.”
Ten centuries ago, the Persian Muslim philosopher Avicenna made a similar plea towards the first cause argument to prove that one true God must exist. That God, of course, was Allah.
800 years ago, Thomas Aquinas similarly attempted to justify God through pure, context-free logic, using five arguments that used different wording but had the same structure for all of them. He referred to them in Quinque Viae as (1) The Argument of the Unmoved Mover, (2) The Argument of the First Cause, (3) The Argument from Contingency, (4) The Argument from Degree, and (5) The Teleological Argument. All five of these took the same basic form: That there must be a first thing that moves stuff, creates stuff, makes stuff necessary, is bigger and better, and designs stuff. Aquinas concluded that this was the God of the Christian Bible, of course.
From the ancient Greeks onward, many civilizations have seriously believed that it was possible to determine fundamental truths about the nature of reality without coming into direct contact with any part of reality. That is to say, if you could use mathematical deductions, philosophical arguments, and logical inferences to make a case then you don’t need to learn anything from the natural world; you can just conclude things about it. Usually, of course, the desired conclusion is a God of some sort, although needless to say, which God varies widely.
Funnily enough though, attributing every unknown to God has had a terrible track record. It ends investigation rather than beginning it. My favorite example is the Egyptian god Ra, who was favored as the explanation for causing the sun to rise and set. Ra would ride across the sky from east to west in his barge, carrying the sun with him, and in the evening he would go underneath the earth in a series of tunnels in order to return to the east again.
Not only was this the wrong answer, it wasn’t even the right question. The sun, of course, does not actually move across the sky at all; a fact discovered and refined, not by divine revelation, but by the following centuries of observation and analysis. Answering questions about misunderstood phenomena by claiming absolute knowledge of magic forces at work is great for providing superficially satisfying answers. It is also great for experiencing unwavering confidence about those superficial answers. It has no proven track record at all when it comes to finding answers that are reliable in the long term.
Even apart from religion, the application of so-called “pure reason” in the absence of experiment has led to centuries of serious misinformation about the nature of the universe. Aristotle was utterly convinced that heavy objects fell faster than light objects, because it just seemed obvious. It took over 1900 years before Galileo corrected that record.
Scientific inquiry resulted in the discovery of the structure of the solar system and eventually the existence of other galaxies. Religious officials jailed the proponents of such discoveries. The Renaissance and subsequent Enlightenment brought about an explosion of scientific discoveries, in areas including life-extending medicine, harnessing the power of electricity, and rapid transportation. These in turn brought about the advancements of the modern world, including our ability to detect and measure behavior at near light speeds and subatomic sizes, near-instantaneous communication from anywhere on the planet, and awesome games like Call of Duty.
Basically, science won. The Bible existed for a couple of thousand years, stuffed full of speculative answers and talking snakes and parting seas, before scientists set about the business of actually observing reality and reverse engineering how things work. At this point in history, the credibility of science is so well established that religious advocates, who were once able to proclaim truth by fiat, have clamored in the last century to wrap themselves in the mantle of science in order to maintain some of their perceived authority.
Consider the history of American creationism in the last hundred years. Prior to the 1925 Scopes trial, the Tennessee law simply outlawed “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible” — tacit official acceptance of Biblical stories as reality. By the 1960’s, the creationist movement adapted by calling themselves “scientific creationism” in order to piggyback on the authority of the word “scientific.” And by the 1990’s, under the banner of “Intelligent Design,” the creationist movement sought to cover up the fundamental religious nature of creationism entirely, although that connection was decisively re-established in the Dover trial. In similar fashion, religious advocates throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries have tried to retroactively align themselves with the lingo of science, even if they bypassed most of the methods.
…That is, until we get to presuppositional apologists like Stephen Feinstein.
One thing I can say about this debate is that it has greatly increased my awareness of the tactics of presuppositional apologetics. Unlike much of modern evangelism, presuppositionalism is an unrepentant throwback to a simpler time, when you could simply ignore evidence and assume that “pure logic” can lead you to a desired tangible conclusion, devoid of any connection to the observed world.
You’ll recall that the way I started my end of this debate was with a suggestion that both sides acknowledge the success of the basic principles of science, and should accept them as a legitimate way of finding things out. Stephen, repeatedly, said no. He insisted that science cannot work unless we agree that science “presupposes” a God to work.
Repeatedly I’ve rejected this premise as both unwarranted and muddled. I challenged Stephen to explain how any being could manufacture logic. He did not explain it. I asked Stephen to justify his own assumption that the lack of God would invalidate logic. He did not justify it. I asked Stephen to “account for” his God in the same sense that he demanded the rest of us “account for” logic. He did not account for it. What he did was repeat the same claim, over and over again, in an increasingly verbose fashion but never in a way that staked out any reason for his positions.
What we are left with is Stephen coming across as if he assumed that scientists are idiots. His primary recollection of his biology class, and his summary of the whole field, is dismissed with the nonsensical and inaccurate phrase, “time + chance equals an orderly universe and life.” He discards most of his erroneous understanding of biology as a “fairy tale.” According to his final post, denying the existence of God is nearly as egregious as denying the law of contradiction.
Yet Stephen seems to revel in making arguments which are essentially incoherent. He taunts:
“…I am starting to think that the presuppositional argument is going over your head. Your comments demonstrate that you simply have not understood it.”
Herein lies the key difference between an argument by a religious apologist perspective, and one coming from a scientific mindset. In order to “win” at the long term goal of reaching well-grounded scientific truths, it is necessary to make arguments that are accessible to others, testable, and repeatable. A scientific paper that bragged that its readers are too dumb to comprehend the author’s wisdom would fail to advance its subject. Unless the conclusions of the paper could be demonstrated and applied, it wouldn’t receive any references in secondary sources, and the idea would meet a well deserved demise.
Examining the following paragraph provides an ample summary of essentially the only argument that Stephen has tried to advance in five posts.
“So here we are, using these mental laws that seem universal among sentient minds, and yet we did not create these laws, but we know that the existence of our mind is the necessary precondition to access them.”
This is question begging of the worst kind. Accessing the laws of logic may well require a mind, since “accessing” implies the process of a mind describing them. This tells us nothing about whether rules such as “A is A” and “A thing cannot exist and not exist simultaneously” hold true in reality; the ability of minds to “access” them is in no way required to cause them to be true.
“If they did not originate in us, but our use of logic is contingent (caused, sustained, and determined by factors outside of us), and yet logic is a product of mind and thought, then our derivative and contingent logic also needs a necessary being as the ground of logic. Logic exists because God exists. God cannot arbitrarily make a square circle because a square objectively has four sides whereas a circle has none, and these exist this way because the logical mind of God determined this as a product of His mind.”
And even here in his own formulation of the argument, Stephen demonstrates why his requirement that “God” must exist to create logic is both meaningless and self-contradictory. Stephen asserts that “God cannot arbitrarily make a square circle.” Why not? If God had “created” the laws of logic, then there must have been a point where they did not apply. Even in describing the creation of logic, Stephen is stuck with the assumption that God is bound by them.
The bottom line is that Stephen believes that all things require a creator… except when they don’t. He wants you to believe that it is impossible and absurd for logic to simply stand on its own without a justification, but when asked to supply the justification for God, he becomes strangely petulant. “I told you that God is necessary!” he insists. “Why can’t you understand that if I describe something as necessary, I don’t have to account for it anymore?”
Later, he asserts:
“…you are a finite man with a three-pound brain who possess no exhaustive knowledge of any single thing. You cannot even possess exhaustive knowledge of a single square inch of earth, since that would require total knowledge of each subatomic particle in the past, present, and future along with the conditions immediately above and below that inch. Autonomous human knowledge is actually epistemologically impossible.”
Somehow, this all-encompassing ignorance of a finite man with a three-pound brain is disregarded when it comes to the confident claim that we can know the existence of the unobserved God with complete certainty.
Try as Stephen might, he can’t make it a universal law that all things need a cause, since that would contradict his conclusion about God. And once we grant that some things are simply self-existing, there’s no justification for refusing to recognize the laws of logic as being in that category, or for ruling out something as inexplicable and ungodlike as a magic tiara to kick everything off. Finally, without the necessity of logic having a creator, Stephen has no argument.
So. Here’s the key question at the end of the day: Are Stephen’s arguments convincing? Or to put it another way, after ten posts, who “wins”?
Is this a meaningful question? In his last two posts, Stephen declared victory approximately 5,387 times. Obviously one method of determining the outcome would be to simply count the number of statements of victory. If I thought that was a good method then I could simply copy and paste the words “I win” 5,388 times before wrapping up this post.
That wouldn’t be terribly satisfying, though. We’ve all known all along that both Stephen and I will wind up equally convinced that we had the best arguments. Stephen tried to throw in some other metrics at various times; for instance, at one point he seems to believe that the debate should be judged based on whose posts were completed in the shortest amount of time. There are plenty of other equally relevant methods we could use; personally, I kind of like this one.
It seems to me, though, that the point of an argument is actually to convince other people of something they didn’t already think, based on the strength of your arguments. In my previous post I actually suggested some more straightforward ways to evaluate the debate: We could submit it to a popular vote. We could bring in a single highly educated person who is agnostic, but has a strong background in philosophy or logic. We could let the guy who introduced us to each other give his thoughts on the arguments.
Of course, Stephen rejected all of these proposals, complaining that all of them favored me. And maybe he’s got a point. The Atheist Experience does have a much bigger audience than Soli Deo Gloria, a brand new blog, for now… though of course, the real question would have been whether Stephen’s arguments convinced anyone to switch teams. Philosophy professors don’t tend to be incredibly impressed by anti-scientific apologetic arguments. And our mutual friend, who was an atheist to begin with, seems to have been singularly irritated with Stephen’s responses for as long as I’ve been in touch with him.
So maybe the results of the debate are strongly weighted in my favor, but that’s hardly my fault. What’s interesting to me is the emotional force with which Stephen, who is so certain in his own mind that he is “winning” somehow, rejected any attempts at measuring his victory.
“First off, truth does not reduce to a matter of majority rules. If so, then imagine if a Jew debated a Nazi in 1936, and then it was left up to the masses to determine who won. I wonder how that one would have turned out?”
Holy moly! Apparently if we allow this debate to have a judge at all, then I’m just like a Nazi!! That’s one of the best invocations of Godwin’s Law that I’ve ever seen! (“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”)
But wait a minute. Sure, the truth of a proposition is not determined by majority opinion; and sure, the truth of a scientific fact is not solely evaluated based on its popularity among scientists. But surely the main point of a debate is to convince others of the strength of your claims. If Stephen didn’t think he could change any minds by making these arguments, then why did he bother? If we had had this debate in front of his church, odds are good that most of the people in there would have remained Christians. But I still would be willing to debate him there, and I personally would be fascinated to know whether any of the audience members felt at least a bit less certain about the strength of their case than they did before we started. If having his arguments evaluated by others is so upsetting, then why else are we here?
Stephen concludes with an all too familiar apologist’s endgame, making a Hail Mary pass to appeal to fear and emotion:
“My only suggestion to you is that you repent of your sin and trust the Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of your soul. You are a guilty sinner who has broken the holy God’s laws, and as a result you will one day stand before Him in judgment. Yet, in His grace and mercy, Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, paid the debt of sinners by bearing their punishment. By receiving such grace by faith, your sins are forever removed because the substitute paid the fine for them, and in return you will receive the credit of every righteous thing Jesus did. For He was the only one to perfectly obey God’s holy standards. To place faith in Christ leads to justification, where God declares a person righteous because of Christ’s righteousness being imputed into their account. Russell, and your followers, I exhort you to repent and receive this grace. If you do, you will receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (third person of the Trinity) as the gift, and you will then know by experience the things I have written about. The choice is yours.”
Let me see, how does this script end? Oh yes, I know, because I’ve read Jack Chick tracts.
Or wait, what if I don’t fall for this line? I guess this.
Very convincing! …Except we’re not comic book characters.
Jack Chick comics are so loaded with smugness that sometimes the comics themselves, in self-referential fashion, show people reading the comics and being converted by them. I think that’s what presuppositionalism hopes to achieve. Ultimately, it seems that the point is not so much to make a serious effort at changing minds; it’s using flowery language to make the point sound intelligent, which serves mainly to bolster the comfort levels of people who are already inclined to believe that their assumption of a God is rational.
Presuppositionalists don’t present evidence. They balk at the notion that they should attempt to persuade. They delight in impenetrable quasi-philosophical wankery. They toss in little jibes like “You know in your heart of hearts that I am right.” And then they go for the big finish with the “On your knees, sinner!” speech.
When all is said and done, we might as well be trying to convince people in the modern world that Ra is still necessary to explain the movement of the sun.