Reply to Stephen Feinstein, round four

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

I’ll be disabling comments one more time in this post, as per Stephen’s initial request. However, since we have agreed that the fifth round will be the last, I’ll be opening up a post-mortem open thread with comments enabled after my next post. At that point, I’ll add links to the open thread from all of the previous posts.


I can’t help noticing that in your last post, you seem to have reimagined your role in this debate.  Here I thought that you were simply a collegial fellow participant, but you have decided to award yourself the position of judge and arbiter.  After all, you did apparently award yourself the victory about a dozen times — rather cockily, I must say — and we haven’t even finished yet.  That shift in tone will be taken into account in this response.

Of course, this change of roles shouldn’t come as any surprise to the readers of our exchange.  It was obvious from the beginning that you would have awarded yourself the victory without exchanging a word if you could have.  When you said that you wanted to have a battle of epistemology, clearly what you really meant is that you wish there were no demands of support and evidence for your belief in God.  Instead, it would be so much easier if we’d both come around to accepting your God as “necessary,” irrespective of any observations we might make that confirm that the God actually exists.

You spent your first two posts promising to build up to an argument without making one; you spent your third post making empty assertions about how you think the God must work; and you’ve spent your most recent post trying to get people to reread the third post to mine out arguments that aren’t there.

“…you are dodging the transcendental argument altogether and are attempting to smuggle your assumptions a priori into the argument without attempting to justify them. When I say ‘justify,’ I simply mean that on the basis of your presuppositions, you cannot account for your assumptions. In fact, if your presuppositions about reality are true, then your assumptions cannot be true at the same time due to inconsistency and arbitrariness.”

You say that, but time and again you have doggedly shirked any of your responsibility to demonstrate that God is a justified means of avoiding that so-called arbitrariness.  In the last post I asked you to justify your God.  Instead of doing that, you kept repeating the mantra that God is “necessary” and other things are “contingent.”  While this obviously sounds very thorough to you and you seem extremely satisfied that you have explained yourself, all you’ve actually done is begged the question by repeating the same claim with different words.

In other words, you are asserting that the laws of logic are “contingent,” by which you mean “something which requires an explanation”; while God is “necessary,” by which you mean “I don’t have to provide an explanation.”  If you think that this kind of thing passes as any kind of rigorous proof, rather than self-satisfied word salad, then I don’t think you understand this discussion as well as you think you do.

I’m going to start by focusing on your “Call of Duty” analogy.  A laborious analogy, which, by the way, was entirely unnecessary, since you could have just said “I claim that William Paley’s Watchmaker Argument is valid.”   That would have saved us both a lot of time, since (1) Everybody would have known exactly what you were talking about in a single sentence, and (2) it isn’t.

The argument from design employs fake induction by extending valid reasoning to invalid claims where it doesn’t apply.  For example: We can definitely know with a high degree of certainty that the “Call of Duty” series was designed by people.  Is it because it’s so complex?  Of course not.  Lots of complex things exist in the world that were not designed by people.  If we find a watch, or a copy of “Call of Duty” on the beach, it is entirely unlike the beach, in that it resembles things that we know humans create.

We know no such thing about sand, rocks, or water.  We experience all those things occurring in the natural world.  Not only can we not conclude that those things were designed by humans, there’s no justified leap of inference that tells us that they were designed at all.  In the natural world, things that we observe to have been designed, were designed by things with brains — the end result of long natural processes with no designer in sight.

Creationists like you make the claim that since some things we observe are created by humans, all things must be created by magical super-humans.  This is as useless as saying that since some crops are grown by farmers, all plants which grow must have been someone’s crops, even in periods of time when we are not aware that any farmers existed.

But this becomes even more pointless when we get to your claim that “the laws of logic” must have had a creator.  What is that even supposed to mean to you?  Have you ever seen somebody create a law of logic out of nothing?  Are you aware of a situation in the past in which “A” did not equal “A” at first, and then an angel banged on something with a hammer, and then suddenly the law of identity became effective?  Because that is what you are claiming — and furthermore, even more astoundingly, you are claiming that this creative process is “necessary” and requires no explanation.

Of course I asked you directly to clarify this in my last post.  I said,

“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?  …What, in short, does it mean for God to “decide” that the laws of logic are one way and not another?”

I’ve been through your message several times, and I don’t see any hint that you tried to make sense of this claim that you made.  As a software engineer, I am fairly familiar with the actual process by which games like “Call of Duty” are created.  It’s not just “And the programmer said ‘Let there be NPCs!'” and it becomes so.  But here you are claiming to know that there is a God who uses a process to create laws of logic.  When we get right down to it, I don’t think such a statement is actually comprehensible even to you while you’re making it.  Axioms, tautologies, and logical inferences aren’t the same kind of entity as buildings, watches, and software, something which is hammered and screwed and generated by electrical impulses.

But of course, you’ve claimed that it is.  You’ve claimed that “logical consistency” requires a creator:

“Even the universe’s uniformity is contingent (caused, sustained, and determined) and as such it transcendentally requires a necessary being.”

Fine.  Prove it.  How does that work?  How does a transcendent being manufacture consistency?

And why should anyone believe that the natural state of a creatorless universe is inconsistency?  One of the most basic principles of physics is inertia: that things remain the same unless acted upon.  It appears in science that consistency and not chaos is the default state.  What you’re claiming is that without a creator, things pop in and out of existence at random; THEN the creator comes along and imposes metaphysical inertia on everything.  I don’t believe you.  Prove it.  Expound, please, on the process by which consistency is “created.”  Convince us all that you’re not just making things up that sound good to you, and then ducking your responsibility to give a genuinely rigorous explanation.

Because, deny it all you want, I claim that logical consistency is “necessary” in the sense that you use the term.  Your addition of God adds nothing to this conversation.  First you say, “You haven’t explained the existence of logic.”  Then you say “I imagine a God would explain the existence of logic.”  Then, when pressed: “I don’t need to explain the existence of God because, you see, it is necessary.”

So your initial insistence that we can’t accept logic without “accounting for” it is a total dodge, because if logic requires you to account for it, then you haven’t done so.  Your God, being unexplained, cannot account for anything, by your own rules, without you accounting for it in turn.  And if you insist that “the God is necessary” as a reason why it needs to get involved, then you need to show that logic isn’t necessary.  And in doing so, you need to do more than just say that; you need to show how it’s possible for logic to not exist, and how it’s possible to create logic.

In addition: if God is a precondition of logic, then you must believe that there was a time when God existed and logic did not.  You also need to make some sort of sense of this claim.  What did the logic-less God do, and how?

I’m sure you’ll say that you can’t actually provide examples of God’s process, since his ways our higher than ours, incomprehensible to mere human minds, and so forth.  But if this seems like an unreasonable standard to ask you to meet, it is only because it starkly highlights the way that you’ve tried to move the goalposts.  If you feel that I can’t make use of logic without providing a detailed accounting for how it came to exist, then you certainly cannot assume God to be an ultimate explanation without meeting the same standards.

Nor can you get out of this if you decide to say that God and logic are the same thing, or in some other sense tied to each other.  If you do, then you’re saying that logic is necessary.  And if “God” and “logic” are merely synonyms, then logic doesn’t require a necessary being, nor does it necessarily share any traits of the Biblical God that you’re trying to reach.

You say that you don’t believe in axioms, and somehow you seem to have convinced yourself that you can set the terms in such a way that I am not allowed to apply them:

“I understand why you are appealing to your assumptions as axioms, but even an elementary level of epistemology overturns the axioms and requires us to discuss preconditions.”

…But then you go on to say that you don’t have to justify your claims.

“At some point it will end (with the Christian God) because preconditions only apply to contingent beings and objects, and by definition cannot apply to a necessary being.”

Stephen.  Come on, man.  It is a distinction without a difference.  I know you’ve decided that you’re being terribly clever by ruling out “axioms” and then claiming that “preconditions by definition cannot apply to a necessary being.”  But all you’ve done is declared God to be your axiom using a different word, while at the same time demanding that axioms be off limits.  No wonder you can declare victory so often.

Let me skip ahead in your post to look at something you seemed to think was the smoking gun of the conversation.

“I am also curious about something else you wrote. You said, ‘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.’ Really? If you accepted the premise that the existence of consistency depends on the existence of the Christian God, we still would be no closer to justifying the claim that God exists?
We both agree that consistency exists. So if I understand you correctly, you are saying that if you agreed that consistency (that we both agree exists) did in fact depend on the existence of the Christian God, that this still does not justify the claim that He exists even though consistency itself exists.
I do understand that you do not believe that I have proved that consistency depends on God, but you did admit that even if I did, it does not prove that God exists. With that statement, you have actually summed up the futility of atheism. I do appreciate that, because it often takes a little longer to draw these type of statements out of atheists.”

In the first place, obviously you are correct when you say that I in no way accept that you have proven that consistency depends on God, as I have made clear many times in this post.  And you are right… if we were able to agree that (1) consistency depends on God, and (2) consistency exists, then obviously it would be absurd to not accept God as a conclusion.

But I brought this up in order to stress the fact that you yourself introduced this absurdity into the conversation right from the beginning, back when you said:

“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.”

By stating that we cannot simply accept things that are obviously true at face value (i.e., consistency exists), you have put the conversation on a footing where the mere acceptance of a claim is not “good enough.”  But using your usual double standard, you’ve tried to throw in God as a justification and then conveniently forgotten that you said that.  In fact, you even deliberately changed my wording.  I said: “…we would still be no closer to justifying the claim that this God exists.”  Then you claimed that I said, “…it does not prove that God exists.”

If we can’t justify logic purely on its own merits, then we can’t presuppose an unjustified God and claim that this justifies logic.  But again… that’s your axiom.

Let me bring this back to the video game analogy that you like so much.  When we see “Call of Duty,” we know (for the specific reasons of familiarity with similar entities, as I said above) that a person probably designed it.  That’s a useful thing to know about Call of Duty, but we also know by basic observation that Call of Duty does, in fact, exist.  This other piece of knowledge is entirely independent of our knowing precisely what the origins are.

For an example of how this conversation is currently going, let’s say we’re sitting on the couch, controllers in hand, taking shots at each other, and having this conversation:

Russell: “Want to play another match?”
Stephen: “You can’t play another match.”
Russell: “Why do you say that?  I’m just going to hit the Start button right now.”
Stephen: “But you cannot play, because you have not justified why this game exists.”
Russell: “What?  That makes no sense.  Here I am, playing with you.”
Stephen: “Well, I can play it, because I know the origin of the game.  But you don’t know the origin, so you lose.”
Russell: “I don’t see what that has to do with anything.  But most likely this game was made by a software company.”
Stephen: “What software company?”
Russell: “I’m not sure which one.”
Stephen: “Aha!  So you admit that you don’t know!  And even if it were a software company, you cannot account for the ultimate origin of this game.  But I can.”
Russell: “And that origin is?”
Stephen: “Obviously the Christian God made the game.”
Russell: “That’s kind of ridiculous, dude.  I don’t think that’s true.”
Stephen:  “Then you can’t play.  To you the game does not exist.”
Russell: “Who are you kidding?  Obviously this game exists.”
Stephen: “It is not good enough for me to say, ‘Russell, I agree with you that this game is real, and that we are now playing it.’ By the way, I agree with you about those things, but with one revision. However, I want us to account for these things.”

…My point, of course, is that the existence of an entity is not dependent on knowing its origin.  Throughout our exchange, you have consistently confused “what” with “why.”  In doing so, you’re just perpetually bringing us back to a pure argument from ignorance fallacy.  If you have an explanation that you think justifies something, and you say that no alternative can be imagined, then you conclude that it must be true, and in your mind that ends your responsibility to justify the assumed explanation.  That simply isn’t valid reasoning.

All I’m saying is that it’s fairly curious how rigorously you demand that nothing be accepted without thoroughly accounting for it, yet that quickly turns into special pleading when the use of “necessary” is applied to a method-free God rather than logic.

This brings me, finally, to your rather odd relationship with the scientific method.

In your second post, you wrote:

If I reject uniformitarianism in favor catastrophism, then I will assume that since rates and conditions change due to massive changes on the earth, that your dating methods are irrelevant and interpretively flawed. So the question at hand is whether or not we are at an impasse. Do we simply agree to disagree, or do we actually start evaluating our assumptions? Do you simply commit the logical fallacy of ad populum and say, “Because a majority of scientists hold position A, therefore it must be true,” or do you instead say, “Truth and fact cannot be reduced to majority opinion, and therefore we need to judge the merit of each assumption?” I hold to the latter, and I hope that you do as well.

At that point in the conversation I didn’t really think it would be very productive to pursue your obvious interest in young earth creationism, since it seemed like your main interest was in presuppositional apologetics and I thought that tangent would take us a little too far off topic.  That’s fine; clearly you do at least recognize that you hold a position which is at odds with the conclusions of most people who professionally pursue a scientific approach to understanding the world, and you’re at peace with that, and argument from popularity is certainly not something I would ever claim.

However, at this point I can’t overlook your contemptuous dismissal of concepts that you don’t really seem to care about describing accurately.  Your latest post asks:

“Do you believe that time and chance account for both the existence of and the evolution of the universe and life? I often wonder how many times has it been written on the whiteboard in Biology 101 that time + chance equals an orderly universe and life?”

I’m going to guess that the answer is pretty close to zero.  I’ve taken a number of biology classes, and that sounds like nothing that any self-respecting science teacher would ever say.  I seem to remember you saying you’ve taken real biology classes, although I can’t find your exact claim at the moment.  Assuming that you have taken at least a competently presented “Biology 101” college level course that explained evolution, if your entire take-away from that class can be summed up by the single sentence “time + chance equals an orderly universe and life” then you must have either slept through the class or put in a tremendous effort to retain that much ignorance.

Seriously, Stephen, I challenge you to find me any legitimate science textbook with pro-evolution wording (i.e., not a court-rejected creationist gospel tract like Of Pandas and People) that remotely resembles such a claim.  Show me a title, publisher and page number, or admit that you were just creating your own imaginary version of evolution.

I mean, in the first place, “origin of the universe” isn’t even covered in a biology class; it’s a different branch of science entirely.  Any biology professor who wrote that claim would, at the very least, be misunderstanding the boundaries of his own field.

In the second place, as I was explaining earlier with respect to “Call of Duty,” observations by science deal with process.  “Time plus chance” has nothing at all to do with the various observations that steered biology towards evolution in general: heritability of genetic traits, variable survival rates among populations, environmental adaptation, observed instances of speciation in laboratories, the mapping of genetic hierarchies, etc., etc.

If, having heard all that, you think that you can reduce a major branch of science down to “time + chance equals an orderly universe and life,” then you aren’t even properly attacking evolution.  You’re not even attacking a straw man version of evolution.  It’s a stick figure with the word “evolution” crudely scrawled on it in crayon.

And why am I bothering to explain this to you, when your whole presuppositional argument is based on the notion of invalidating the basic principles of science and claiming that true knowledge must be dumped directly into your head by your presupposed God?  The reason is: If you can’t even bother to gain a basic comprehension of the science you’re trying to ridicule, then you have no business issuing a blanket dismissal of that caricature.

I’m afraid we haven’t really got the time to incorporate an actual overview of the basics of evolution, and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t care if I did.  If we were going to take a tangent then we could certainly cover, for example, the basics described here, or the evidence described here.  But in order for that to matter, you’d have to be willing to recognize how science is actually performed, rather than paying cursory lip service to it before summing up the field in a single pithy (and entirely misleading) sentence, and dismissing all of the science that built the modern world as “uniformitarianism.”

As I’ve done before, I’ll wrap up with a few odds and ends and then sum up.

You’re pretty firmly attached to your use of the equivocation fallacy.  Once again, equivocation “is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning or sense (by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time). It generally occurs with polysemic words (words with multiple meanings).

In my last post I pointed out that your repeated use of the word “random” — which your own lists as having seven distinct meanings —  is a prime example, since agreeing that one definition applies does not legitimize the application of other meanings.

You responded by telling me what the first dictionary definition is, ignoring the others, and then claimed that because it was the first definition, it is the only one.  If your intent was to simply illustrate how equivocation works, then repeating the same claim achieves that goal.  Since your response to having this fallacy pointed out is to repeat the fallacy, I’m not going to waste any more time than it takes to simply repeat the reason it’s invalid.

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.”

It really is that simple.  You’ve tried to tie this in linguistic knots by saying that science claims that the universe “directed by randomness.”  It does not say that, which speaks again to the previous section on your oversimplified straw man portrayals of science

To sum up this post:

  1. The argument from design isn’t valid.  It uses faulty induction by assuming that human design (observed) extends to superhuman design (neither observed nor required).
  2. Your assumption of God remains wholly without evidence.  Your assertion that God is a necessary precondition of logic has not been demonstrated.
  3. You’ve introduced a whole lot of double standards in this conversation.  You believe that it is not fair for me to call some things axioms, because everything must be justified.  Everything, that is, until you decided to arbitrarily apply the label “necessary” to something that hasn’t even been shown to exist.
  4. You have yet to show that logic and consistency aren’t necessary, or that inconsistency is a default state that we should accept.  Clearly you think that some things (i.e., God) can be offered without explanation as long as you call them necessary.
  5. You have yet to make sense of any sort of process by which God could go about “creating” logic and consistency. Failing to meet this standard shows that you don’t really believe in the requirement to account for everything as much as you claim to.
  6. “Atheism is impossible” hasn’t come close to being demonstrated.

Since you’ve agreed to conclude after five rounds, your next post is the last one I’ll link.  I look forward to hearing your closing thoughts.

However, there is one open ended question remaining, which is the matter of actually judging the outcome of the debate.  Obviously you’ll agree with me that if you declare victory and I also declare victory, it won’t resolve anything.  We never actually discussed judging in our initial exchange, which was probably an oversight by both of us.  In order to settle this question, and show that we’re not just talking past each other into a void, I can think of three possible ways that this debate might be judged:

  1. Matthew introduced us to each other and proposed the debate.  He could write a closing summary of his thoughts when we’re done.
  2. We can post an online survey if you wish.  I offer to compose this survey on a third party site and run it by you to make sure the wording is not slanted.  The winner is determined by the survey results.
  3. We can seek out an educated but neutral third party to judge the matter; for instance, a purely agnostic philosophy professor.

I’m willing to submit to any or all of these methods of concluding the debate.  If you have a better idea, feel free to suggest it.

Continue to part 5.