Reply to Stephen Feinstein, round three

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.


I hope you’ll excuse the amount of time it took to complete this post; your last post was about twice as long as the one before it.  Also, you appear to be getting frustrated by the conversation, and I think I’ve identified a significant source of miscommunication between us. It seems to me that your continued efforts to prove God are based on a serious double standard, and in this post I intend to point out where this lies.

Before I get to that though, I’d like to invoke a rule that we discussed before we started.  Since I don’t intend to continue this conversation indefinitely, I propose that we wrap it up after a total of five rounds.  That means after this, you and I will each write two more posts, with the last ones being dedicated to closing statements.  Is that acceptable to you?  I could see reducing it to one more, or extending it to three, but I really don’t want to go much longer than that, so it’s your call from there.

With that bit of bookkeeping out of the way, I’ll begin.

To start off: you asked me a direct question, and not only will I give a direct answer, but I’ll point out why the question itself is a source of miscommunication.  You said:

“Russell, there is no point playing games over these issues, so please answer me honestly. Do you or don’t you have assumptions that depend on presuppositions?”

Yes, of course I do.  I think I’ve stated that clearly in the past.   However, I think a key point which you have been deliberately glossing over in the discussion, is this: Some assumptions, but not all, require presuppositions.

Let me explain what I mean by this.  In my previous messages, I’ve listed three points of basic assumption that I thought we could agree on: 1. Reality exists. 2. We collect information through sensory perception. 3. We use logical inferences to justify believing or not believing things.

Now, when I described these as “assumptions,” what I really meant was that they are axiomatic.  With your grounding in philosophy, I’m sure you will already be aware that an axiom is defined as “a self-evident truth that requires no proof; a universally accepted principle or rule.” I took it for granted that this was also what you understood that I meant by “assumptions,” but then I noticed that in saying “…that depend on presuppositions” you meant that the assumptions also require preconditions to be true, which is why you keep repeating the assertion that the existence of logic requires an explanation.

And yet, regardless of what presuppositions you may have, at some point we must reach a position that is simply asserted to be true and requires no explanation.  I can demonstrate this very easily by asking you the following question: “How do you justify (or account for) the existence of God?”

Before you answer, let me clarify that I’m not just asking once again, “Why do you believe in God?”  I’m asking you to apply your own meaning of “justify,” which you’ve been using in claims like “I, Stephen, am the only one who can justify/account for logic.”  Your justification invokes a God, so I’m asking you to tell me what your presupposition might be that accounts for God.

Now, ordinarily I’d like to stop and wait for your answer before proceeding, because I don’t wish to put words in your mouth.  But since I have to respond to your entire message before we get to the next round, I’m going to take a guess at what your answer is going to be to the question “How do you account for God?”

It’s something like this: “That’s a stupid question.”  Am I close?

I feel pretty confident that your answer will be along these lines, because it is similar to another line of questioning that I’m sure you are very familiar with, cosmological arguments (whether Kalam or otherwise), which generally run in a similar way:

Theist: “All things [in a stated category] have a cause.  The first cause is God.”

Atheist: “What caused God?”

Theist: “Stupid question.  God is not in that category.”

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.

Now, I see your objection here; from your last message:

“In philosophical terms, you are guilty of arbitrariness. Arbitrariness is to believe something without any justification whatsoever. Well, you have never observed something come from nothing, so to assume the entire universe happened this way is to be guilty of arbitrariness.”

I’ll just go ahead and grant this one.  Sure, it is totally arbitrary to start from that point.  Just like the invention of a God, and the treatment of the God as axiomatic, is arbitrary.  Just like the magic tiara is arbitrary.  Can we prove that there’s no magic tiara?  Of course not, because you and I both agree that perfect knowledge is impossible for us.

So at first glance, that appears to make this discussion completely symmetrical: should we accept your arbitrary starting point, or should we accept mine? But here’s where I remind you of the thing that you keep saying: Atheism is illogical.  Atheism is untenable. Atheism is impossible.  Not, “Atheism is based on a set of axioms that are not the same as Stephen Feinstein’s, and I don’t approve of that.”

Which brings me, finally, to your basis for this claim.  Throughout your last post, you repeated the claim that atheism implies a random universe.  To be precise, a word count shows me that you repeat the words “random” and “randomness” a total of 33 times in your post.  Yet I fear that your technique of using the word “random” is subject to the same problems as our miscommunication with the word “assumption”: You’re taking a single word with multiple meanings, and then acting as if both meanings can be used interchangeably.  This is, of course, a classic equivocation fallacy.

Let me just highlight one particular place where you do this, because really, once you’ve made this fallacy, approximately two thirds of your entire post winds up wandering off into shaky territory based on a connection that you haven’t properly made.  You state:

“Your fundamental assumption is that the universe is governed by random chance.”

Since it is your conclusion that the lack of a God implies “randomness,” you seem to be using the word to mean that the universe is undirected.  And if this were all you were saying, then I’d certainly be inclined to agree.  But you don’t mean this, because you immediately go on to say:

“How in the world can randomness account for uniformity? They are antonyms!”

And this is exactly where the bait and switch occurs.  “Undirected” is not the antonym of “uniformity.”  The entire premise for the remainder of your post is that a universe which lacks a god must be a nonuniform universe.  An inconsistent universe, a haphazard universe.  It must be a universe in which objects sometimes fall down and sometimes fall up, and sometimes molecules spontaneously fly apart and planets wink in and out of existence.  A universe where “A” equals “not A,” zero equals one, and Genghis Khan was married to a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Except that you never establish any of this, nor offer a shred of justification for it.

You’re the one making the direct claim that “Uniformity exists if and only if God exists,” so it’s your responsibility to prove it.  As matters stand now, this is a nonsensical and unjustified premise, stated for no reason other than that you really want it to be true.  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.

That’s where the rest of your post falls apart.

This is what you were trying so hard to dismiss — repeatedly — as “smoke and mirrors,” and to imply that I’m trying to lay some sort of sneaky trap.  On the contrary, Axiomatic Theory of Truth is a well established principle of philosophy.  It’s dishonest for you to apply this in one direction only, acting as if “God” is a solution to the question of origins while being exempt from the question itself.

Now again, your accusation is that my choice of logical consistency as axiomatic is “arbitrary,” and I assert, in turn, that your choice of a God is arbitrary.  And so, again, our positions appear to be symmetrical.  But this symmetry is an illusion because, as I said in my previous posts, we both ultimately assert and rely on the fact that reality and logic exist, and that some imperfect measure of knowledge is possible.  Those things are evident; God is not, except as an injection of special properties intended to solve a problem which it doesn’t solve.

Occam’s Razor suggests that we ought not to unnecessarily multiply entities.  While you claim that I can’t prove that there exists an uncaused universe, you can’t prove that there exists an uncaused God.  Yet we both grant the existence of the universe, and we both conclude that something exists that is uncaused, so the God is the odd one out in this discussion.

Taking that into account, God can’t be a necessary conclusion as far as I’m concerned.  If you had asked me right from the beginning “Russell, is God a possible conclusion?” I would have said “Sure it is.  Just as good an explanation as the magic tiara.”  But since the outcome of this debate hinges on you proving that your assumption of the existence of God must be preferred over all others, I’m afraid we’re just going to have to remain in disagreement.

You say that a Godless universe must  necessarily be a universe in which consistency and patterns do not exist.  The ball’s in your court to demonstrate any reason why this follows.

The ball is also in your court to show how it makes any sense to say that a sentient God could actually “create” the laws of logic at all.  Did logic not exist before God spoke it into existence?  Is it your hypothesis that there used to be a universe in which A = not A, and then God decided to change it?  Could God have decided to make all laws of logic the opposite of what they are now?  And if he did, would it logically follow that he did not?  Can God perform tasks which are illogical, simultaneously both A and not A, or is he bound by the laws of logic himself?  What, in short, does it mean for God to “decide” that the laws of logic are one way and not another?

I’ll wrap up by considering the additional assumptions that you asked me to agree to at the end of your post.

“1) You and I are not neutral and we do not interpret evidence neutrally: (otherwise you would not have said God has never been observed for I believe the evidence greatly shows that He has)  2) Epistemology is extremely relevant in addressing our positions and assumptions”

Ah, I see what you did there.  If I were objective, then I’d just agree unquestioningly with your statement that God is real.  It’s a nice try, but I reject your premise again.

While I agree that you and I do not interpret evidence neutrally, that is something of a red herring.  You’ve agreed that there is a real world, and therefore whether we interpret information accurately depends entirely on the degree to which our interpretation corresponds to the real world.  What you claimed to be proving is that atheism is in fact impossible, not that atheism is impossible as long as I buy into your framework.  You still haven’t done this.

“3) If you really believe it is better not to believe something is true without good reasons then you need to also apply that standard to your own brand of atheism.”

I certainly do believe that.  Which is why as soon as you bring in some credible evidence for God, or some justification, I shall properly evaluate that evidence and discard my atheism.  As before I look forward to you doing so.

“To be honest, I don’t see me as losing anything in this debate so far. I believe in each post I have interacted with your comments much better than you interacted with mine. Furthermore, in my last response I refused to allow you to box me into any traps where I surrender the philosophical nature of this argument.”

Throughout this discussion, you’ve been obsessing over the notion of “smoke and mirrors” and your fear of being “boxed in” by traps.  It seems to me that this insecurity exists because on some level you recognize that your arguments haven’t got much substance to them.  Presuppositional apologetics appears to be all about unilaterally claiming that logic cannot exist without this entity you’ve made up (be it a trinity or a tiara).  You say that this is so because no one is allowed to believe anything without accounting for it; yet you don’t feel like you are responsible for justifying your logic-creating talisman.  Either you believe that some claims are axiomatic, in which case you have no reason to search for presuppositions for the existence of logic; or else you believe that everything must be justified, in which case you must justify your god.  To claim a universal problem which you then simultaneously deny is universal as it applies to you, seems to me to be a bit hypocritical.

Finally, for the benefit of readers with short attention spans, I’ll conclude by summing up my main points in this post:

  1. Both Stephen and Russell should agree that some concepts are axiomatic, requiring no explanation.  For Stephen, the axiom is God.  For Russell, reality and logic are axiomatic, and God is a needless insertion.
  2. Stephen cannot assert that the existence of logic requires justification, unless he also attempts to offer a justification of God.  If he believes that this is unnecessary, then he should grant point (1).
  3. If the assumptions for all parties are arbitrary then Russell should win this debate, since Stephen failed to meet the burden of proof that he implied when stating that atheism is impossible.  If the belief in God is merely Stephen’s preferred assumption, then it is not necessary, and may be discarded due to Occam’s Razor.
  4. Stephen’s claim that a godless universe must be a random universe (where “random” is used to mean “inconsistent,” “illogical,” or “haphazard,” as opposed to merely “undirected”) requires justification, otherwise I reject the premise.
  5. Stephen should justify how a God would go about “creating” the laws of logic, without himself being subject to logic.


Continue to part 4.


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