Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Dawson's Concepts

Looking at Dawson Bethrick’s site after reading Steve’s response, I found that Dawson has posted a lengthy essay answering the age-old question: “Would an Omniscient Mind Have Knowledge in Conceptual Form?

My heart really goes out to this man now. Of all the things he could be doing in San Francisco in the spring (like putting flowers in his hair, watching the Giants, or whatever), he decided to write this post instead. And while it demonstrates Dawson’s commitment to Randian philosophy, it also demonstrates his inability to grasp basic Christian concepts.

Dawson said:
Many believers might think that, since Christianity teaches that man was created in the Christian god’s image, man’s thinking in the form of concepts would indicate that their god thinks in the form of concepts as well.
Firstly, this relies on the worn out, “Many unnamed non-specified people think X” fallacy. Dawson plays this card a lot, I’ve noticed (I’ve been interacting with him for several years—probably close to half a decade by now). I’ve no doubt that he’s heard the above from someone; but it makes his argument seem more relevant to change it to “many.”

Secondly, even if “many believers” do think this, it’s certainly not due to Biblical knowledge, which includes such verses as:

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:9).

For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:11).
Given these passages, it would be very foolhardy indeed for a believer to argue, “I think this way, therefore God does too.”

So now we get to the purpose of Dawson’s argument:
If it can be determined that an "omniscient" consciousness would not possess its knowledge in the form of concepts, this would have ruinous implications for the presuppositionalist approach to Christian apologetics which seeks to contrive aspects of man’s cognitive experience as evidence for an omniscient being whose thinking serves as the model for man’s mental abilities.
(Note: readers of the above sentence may now realize why I included Bethrick in my previous satire, Ode Owed to Bethrick, Morgan, Enloe, Orthodox, et. al..)

Of course I can see many ways in which this would not be ruinous at all, even if we ignore the fact that Dawson is attacking a straw man here. I will delve into those more in detail as Dawson presents his argument. But at a bare minimum, I also have to wonder just what Dawson thinks “omniscient” means.

If we define omniscience as knowledge of everything, this is not actually a definition of omniscience that is held by a Biblical believer. For instance, God does not know what a round square looks like. And of course God doesn’t have experiential knowledge of sin: that is, God does not personally know what it is like to lie, etc.

But when we realize that omniscience refers to those things that are possible for God to know, such as all true propositions, then we simply ask: is it impossible for a being that knows all that is possible to know to know what a concept is? If it is possible to know what a concept is, then a being that knows all that is possible to know, would indeed know these concepts too.

Dawson claims:
It would not make sense to suppose that man’s cognitive functions are patterned after a consciousness whose awareness is so vastly superior to or different from man’s consciousness that it would have no use for the kinds of functions man’s mind employs.
This, of course, begs the question. After all, is it not possible for a being that knows all that can logically be known to use concepts that He knows to communicate to beings He created with the ability to understand these same concepts? If God intends to use concepts to communicate with His creation, how would that cause any logical problems?

Simply asking these questions before he began to write his essay would have saved Dawson a lot of time to watch the Giants…

By now, you may be wondering just how Dawson defines what a concept is anyway. Seeing the definition helps to demonstrate why there is no contradiction in Christian theism.

Dawson writes:
To understand how erroneous it would be to assume that an omniscient, all-seeing and omnipresent consciousness would possess its knowledge in the form of concepts, we need to consider what concepts accomplish for man. And to understand what concepts do for man, we need to understand the essentials of his consciousness. Consciousness is consciousness of something, i.e., of an object(s).
I’ll interrupt for a second to point out the obvious problem with the last sentence. “Consciousness is consciousness of something” demonstrates that Dawson cannot define “consciousness” without referencing the very thing he’s trying to define! As such, this “definition” requires you to know what is being defined in order to understand the definition. Now Dawson would most certainly argue that it is because consciousness is axiomatic; but even if it is, all he has done here is given us an empty label that he bases the rest of his argument upon. It’s about as meaningful as saying “A is A.” It tells you absolutely nothing about the nature or ontology of A. “Consciousness is consciousness of something” tells you absolutely nothing about what consciousness is, other than that it involves “something.”

And man’s consciousness begins with perception of the world around him. Perception does not give man awareness of concepts; it gives him awareness of particular entities, their attributes, actions, etc. Sense perception gives man awareness of these things in the form of percepts….

But man can perceive only a limited number of existents at any moment, and his perceptual faculty can retain and integrate only a limited number of sensations at any moment. However, man can get “beyond” these limitations by means of conceptual integration. Conceptual integration allows him to expand his awareness beyond the objects of his immediate, perceptual awareness by combining them into classes which include not only the particular entities which he perceives in the “here and now,” but also similar entities which he has perceived, may one day perceive and may never perceive. What makes this expansion of man’s consciousness beyond the immediate inputs of sense perception possible, is the process of abstraction: integration of multiple units into categories by means of measurement-omission according to common isolated essentials.
Now it should be noted that I have no objection to any of the above. Man certainly does seem to think in this manner. But how Dawson gets from the above definitions to the idea that an omniscient being cannot use concepts is where the problems are.

In the above, Dawson is dealing with man: a finite creature. This is demonstrated by Dawson pointing out that “man can perceive only a limited number of existents at any moment.” No matter how hard a man may wish it, he simply cannot become infinite. He cannot view an infinite number of “existents” because he is limited both in space and in time. Without the ability to form abstractions, communication and higher thinking simply could not exist.

All this I agree with Dawson on. However, he then concludes:
Concepts thus allow man to treat as a single whole an unlimited series of existents which he has not observed or directly perceived, on the basis of those which he has observed or directly perceived. Concepts are therefore a kind of mental shorthand which he needs because he does not have direct awareness of all members of a class.
And this is where I disagree. Concepts can be formed even when one has “direct awareness all the members of a class.” This can easily be demonstrated by a quick thought experiment.

Suppose the entire universe consisted of one room with two objects in the room. These objects both had the same shape. One observer looked in this room and said that the shape of the first object was “square.” The other shape is also a square. He can thereby state that if anything else were to pop into existence with that shape, it would also be square. He has abstracted the shape “square” and yet has full knowledge of all the actual existent objects in the universe.

Or, to put it another way, if you can conceptualize based on a few objects, you can conceptualize based on a few more than that. And if you can conceptualize with more objects, you can conceptualize even when you have all objects, both real and potential.

Of course, I should point out that Dawson did couch his argument in terms of “need” for he said: “Concepts are therefore a kind of mental shorthand which he needs because he does not have direct awareness of all members of a class.” So perhaps he could argue that God did not need the ability to form concepts even though He could do so.

But God did not need to create man either, and He chose to do so. Once God created man, then the need would certainly be there if He desired to communicate with man. If God did not wish to communicate with man, then there would be no need for Him to be able to form concepts; but because that view is heretical to the Christian position, which Dawson is supposedly critiquing, we can safely ignore it.

Skipping down to Dawson’s response to his made-up theist objections, we read:
[Believing that God’s consciousness is infinite] will only play into my point, namely that the “knowledge” which Christians claim on behalf of their god could not be conceptual in nature. Since its awareness is not limited to only a small number of units at any given time, it would not possess its knowledge in a form which omits specific measurements in order “to extend its grasp beyond a mere handful of concretes.” Such a method of cognition would actually destroy its omniscience, for it would obliterate its immediate awareness of all the details belonging to everything that exists save for a statistically insignificant few.
Of course, as I’ve quoted in the verses above, the Bible doesn’t treat God’s knowledge as only “conceptual in nature.” Dawson put this limitation on the theist, not the Bible. But what Dawson fails to realize is that an all-knowing God could still form concepts in order to communicate to those He created. God knows what concepts are; if He is all-knowing, He knows not only all objects but all true conceptualizations of these objects too. God can use them to communicate (revelation) with man. There is nothing inherently illogical with this.

Dawson, after quoting Bahsen, concludes:
Since, according to this view, the Christian god “has no ‘percepts’ from which He constructs His knowledge,” it would have no need for a faculty which “integrates and thus condenses a group of percepts into a single mental whole.”
Once again, Dawson begs the question. He supposed God would have no “need for a faculty which ‘integrates and thus condenses a group of percepts into a single mental whole’”, which begs the question that God does not wish to communicate to concept-based beings! God most certainly WOULD need the faculty to do so if He wished to relate to His creation, and (as I argued above) it is not illogical to state that God can do so. Since He logically can do so, and since Christians state God does want to communicate to us, then Dawson has no argument left.

God's knowledge--what He Himself knows--is not conceptual. But He reveals Himself to us conceptually because that is the only way that we can think. We are the image of God, not God Himself.


  1. Very good. It's rather distressing to have to correct Bethrick so much. I realize the fallen, unregenerate mind can't understand spiritual truth, but you'd think he'd be able at least represent the opposing position with some clarity.

    The view you are taking is certainly demonstrable from Scripture. Let's take the concept of the Law. The Law is revealed in propositions. However, it also revealed in a Person, Christ. Speaking of Christ, the Law points to Christ. The Tabernacle prefigures Christ. The Tabernacle, as well as the Temple, is a picture of the universe, God Himself, Christ, and a whole host of other images. Certainly, then, Scripture shows us that God thinks in ways we do not, for His thoughts are the picture, so to speak, whereas ours require words. The difference between us and God, then is the difference between a description of a masterpiece painting and the painting itself. As they say, "a picture is worth a thousand words," yet God has chosen to leave us the words, and He has given the generations of those whose history is recorded some marvelous pictures, culminating in the greatest, the revelation of His Law, His Word, His Thought, indeed Himself, in the Person of Jesus Christ.

  2. *SIGH*

    B O R I N G !

    Scripture Shchmipture....

    A book says it...I believe it...that settles it.

    L A M E !

  3. Concisely,

    "...Concepts are what underlie predication in thought and language, which in conceptualism means that concepts cannot exist independently of the socio-biologically based capacity humans have for thought and language. The universals of realism, on the other hand, are what underlie predication in reality--e.g., the states of affairs that obtain in the world (as in natural realism), or the propositions that constitute the objective truths and falsehoods of the world (as in logical realism). These universals are assumed to exist independently of the human capacity for thought and language -- and in logical realism (as a modern form of Platonism), unlike natural realism (as a modern form of Aristotelianism), they are assumed to exist independently of the causal structure of the world as well, and even independently of whether they are logically realizable or not...
    The properties and relations of natural realism, for example, are posited to account for the causal structure of the world; and, in that regard, they are not assumed to be the semantic grounds for the correct or incorrect application of predicate expressions except when those predicate expressions are explicitly assumed to represent such a natural property or relation -- an assumption that can only be made
    a posteriori...
    they [natural properties and relations] are what in the causal order may correspond to some, but by no means all, of the concepts we can form and the predicate expressions we can introduce in our use of language...
    If natural realism is to be a viable formal ontology at all, in other words, then in principle it must be able to provide thecausal ground for one or another form of conceptualism--or, to be more precise, of one or another form of conceptual natural realism...
    without some associated form of realism, natural or otherwise, conceptualism is at best only a truncated ontology, and it is dubious that it alone can provide an adequate account of the different modes or categories of being

    We've talked about this (conceptualism and ontology) before (sections 6-8 here).

  4. atI'm not a Christian, but even I find Dawson's argument rather pointless.