Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Abominable Snow Job

After biding his time, Bethrick has replied to Manata and Engwer.

He also quotes me in a couple of places. Although most of his fire is directed at my colleagues, I’ll horn in on this debate as well.

I’ll confined my comments to what I think are Dawson’s major arguments:

“I have pointed out before that presuppositionalism's own hallmark slogan to the effect that Christianity is true "because of the impossibility of the contrary" is incongruous with the worldview such contrivances are intended to defend; for, in a worldview which affirms that "all things are possible," it makes no sense to turn right around and start enumerating things that are impossible.”

This is sophistical and simple-minded. There are different types of possibility, impossibility, and necessity.

God is omnipotent. But omnipotence is not his only attribute. It was possible for God to refrain from making a covenant with Abraham, but having freely entered into such a covenant, it is impossible for God to go back on his word.

There is a difference between what’s morally possible and what’s metaphysically possible. God is omnipotent, but God is also wise, just, and truthful.

The Bible itself says that there are things which God cannot do (e.g. Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29; 2 Tim 2:13; Heb 6:18; Jas 1:13,17).

That is no infringement on divine omnipotence.

i) To begin with, God is self-identical. God cannot be less than God. God’s self-identity is a presupposition of his omnipotence and every other attribute.

If God could violate his nature, then he would be no God. In that event there would be no property-bearer in which the attribute of omnipotence inheres.

God could not be omnipotent unless he were immutable. For if he were mutable, then his omnipotence would be a mutable attribute.

ii) It is a category mistake to suppose that what is morally possible imposes a limit on what is metaphysically possible.

At a metaphysical level, God can instantiate any logically compossible state of affairs.

To say that God cannot lie, sin, change, or deny himself is not a boundary condition on divine omnipotence, for God was never the object of his own omnipotence. By definition, omnipotence is concerned with effecting a change, with making things happen. It takes the creature, and not the Creator, as its object.

To tell a lie, to go back on one’s word, is not the same type of action as performing a miracle or making the world ex nihilo.

It is not an object of omnipotence. It belongs to a different domain.

Dawson is generating an artificial dilemma. We are not the ones who rip Mt 19:26 out of context, then turn right around and start enumerating things that are impossible.

Dawson is imputing to us an initial position which we do not affirm, then accuses us of inconsistency when we modify a position we never held in the first place. He generates a false antithesis by foisting upon us a premise that we reject, then deriving a contradictory conclusion.

Dawson is simply talking to himself when he indulges in such a rhetorical ploy.

“ Similar tension arises when one wants to affirm, on the one hand that the nature of the universe is such that ‘all things are possible,’ while insisting on the other that things can only be a certain way, which just so happens to be in agreement with other affirmations dear to the confession. From here the dilemmas only succeed in multiplying themselves.”

No, not the nature of the universe, but the nature of God.

Things could have been otherwise had God willed things to be otherwise. But having willed one possibility, that excludes an opposing possibility. Not all possibilities are compossible.

“Now Paul [Manata] asks if the verse in question can ‘really mean that anything can happen, that anything is possible.’ Christianity answers this question in its characteristic yes-and-no fashion, offering no stable guide to discerning when a guarantee on either yes or no can be had. The Christian wants things both ways: he wants to say, on the one hand, that his god is all-powerful, possessing unlimited sovereignty, completely and unexceptionally in control of its creations; and yet, on the other hand, he wants to say that there are constraints in place which cannot be altered, constraints which even his god must observe (even though those constraints owe their very existence to this god).”

This is a repeat of Dawson’s straw man argument. We do not stake out the initial position that God is free to do anything whatsoever, only to immediately qualify our prior affirmation.

Dawson is imposing on us a position which is not our own position, then inferring a contradiction. He imputes to us an unqualified position, then imputes to us a qualified position, as if we began with an unqualified position, then sought to moderate the absolute force of our original position.

But this multi-stage presentation is a polemical caricature of what we believe.

And this is a tacit admission that Dawson is impotent to find a flaw in our actual position. Since he must misrepresent our position in order to refute it, our real position is irrefutable.

“Instead, we'll likely see the apologists striking out against their critics. For instance, Christians may counter saying, "But this is the Christian God! It wouldn't make sense for Him to misrepresent Himself by causing mass hallucinations to those whom He has chosen to document and deliver His message of salvation!" This kind of retort of course overlooks the fact that these are the believer's assumptions, not mine.”

Is Dawson really that dense? He is attempting to generate a dilemma. That is in the nature of an internal critique. He is trying to show that Christian theism suffers from internal tensions.

In mounting an internal critique, it is necessary for the disputant to grant the assumptions of the opposing position for the sake of argument.

Having been answered on his own ground, Bethrick now abandons his original argument.

“If one grants validity to the notion that there is a supernatural consciousness which can coordinate human history according to its will or "plan," whose power is invincible and whose efficacy in causing desired outcomes cannot be impeded by any extraneous factor, then one erases any rational distinction between the arbitrary and the objective, the absurd and the reasonable. In effect, one admits the all-encompassing element of complete randomness (for there is nothing more difficult to judge than another mind), having no idea of what to expect to be the case from moment to moment, unless of course, at the height of his pretense, the believer in such things carelessly blurs the distinction between his mind and the mind he imaginatively attributes to the supernatural fantasy he enshrines.”

This is a completely illogical chain of reasoning:

i) As long as the supernatural consciousness is a rational agent, then the distinction between arbitrary and object, absurd and reasonable remains in force.

ii) And insofar as this supernatural consciousness has revealed his plan, then we do have a stable guide for discerning what is possible or impossible.

“Thus we continue to see how the Christian worldview works against itself: in the words of Steve Hays himself, the apologist ‘can only make his claim by burning his drawing card.’"

Those are not my words. My words did not take the Christian apologist as their object. My words took John Loftus as their object. Bethrick has reassigned my words.

In context, it was John Loftus, the secular polemicist, who had to burn his drawing card by riding on the coattails of Bill Craig while at the same time denying that an educated, scientifically literate man could believe in miracles.

“But on Christianity’s own premises, the claim in Mt. 19:26 that "all things are possible" is a divinely revealed truth which settles the question here quite explicitly. Unless Christians suppose that their god goes back on its word, then it seems that anyone confessing himself to be a Christian should accept Mt. 19:26 as a solemn and unalterable truth, and consequently have the courage to follow it to its logical conclusion, regardless of the undesirable implications it may have for other teachings (such as those biblical teachings which are in direct conflict with it).”

Once again, one wonders if Bethrick is playing dumb, or really dumb.

i) To begin with, there’s such a thing as original intent. Of what did Jesus mean it to be true?

For example, Jesus did not believe that Yahweh was a covenant-breaker. Indeed, Jesus believed in the necessity of prophetic fulfillment. He must go to the cross in fulfillment of the OT scriptures.

A phrase like Mt 19:26 was never meant to be true when it is isolated from the narrative assumptions of Matthew.

ii) If Mt 19:26 were in direct conflict with other biblical teachings, then it would not be divinely revealed truth. Bethrick is removing the preconditions under which it could be true.

All he’s done is to artificially predicate a contradictory state of affairs by simultaneously affirming and negating a necessary truth-condition for the argument to work in the first place. If you shoot out the tires, the plane will never get off the runway.

Needless to say, a Christian is not committed to Mt 19:26 on condition that Mt 19:26 is or may be in direct conflict with other teachings of Scripture.

“Because it grants metaphysical primacy to an imaginary ruling consciousness, supernaturalism (of which Christianity is only one variant-type) relinquishes its ability to provide any objective analysis of real-world proposals because of the subjective orientation inherent in its affirmation of a ruling consciousness controlling the universe of objects. Since, in such a view, all the objects in the universe owe their very existence and distinctions to the creative wishing of the ruling consciousness, the ruling subject serves as its own standard as well as the standard of everything it creates (which is said to be everything distinct from itself). In this way, the Christian effectually reduces what he might call 'objectivity' to pure self-reference by denying reference to any objects distinct from itself which exist independent of its intentions and resist conforming to its wishing. It is this paradigm of ultimate subjectivism which affirmations purported to have objective backing (such as assessments as to what is 'likely' and 'unlikely') are hired on to defend. It simply does not work.”

I’d love to respond to Bethrick—if only I knew what he meant. But trying to fix the meaning is so subjective, you know. As someone recently said, “there is nothing more difficult to judge than another mind.”

I cannot appeal to Dawson’s authorial intent, for, as reader-response theory has taught us, that would commit the intentional fallacy.

So Dawson’s objection means whatever the reader, and not the author, assigns to it. And the meaning I assign to his words is that he is offering the reader a recipe for walnut fudge brownies.

“According to Genesis, we have dust becoming a human being, and yet dust is non-moral while human beings are moral. Thus we have, according to Genesis, the non-moral becoming moral. The same with the non-rational becoming rational, since dust is also non-rational.”

What we actually have in the Biblical anthropology is a rational Creator who makes a rational soul and assigns it to a particular body. So we go from a rational cause (divine agency) to a rational effect (embodied souls).

No, you’re not going to get all of this from Gen 1-2, because there is more to the Biblical anthropology than Gen 1-2.

“What’s more is that their protestations against the hallucination theory clearly take for granted key assumptions which are disputed in the critical literature, and thus they beg the question to begin with. Not only do they assume that the New Testament documents outline uniform accounts and teachings, they also assume that the accounts are historically reliable.”

Another blunder. When a Christian apologist argues against the hallucination theory, it is the assumptions of the hallucination theorist which are at issue. It is the hallucination theorist who regards the post-Resurrection narratives as sufficiently reliable than he must posit an alternative explanation for the same recorded events.

“But if, for instance, the stories of Paul’s conversion in Acts are not historically reliable, then there’s no need to suppose that Paul was hallucinating. Time and again, such basic points seem to have escaped the wit and wisdom of Triablogue’s apologetic superstars, who are apparently so eager to rush into battle against their threatening nemeses that they don’t realize they’ve fallen over a cliff.”

To the contrary, we argue with each opponent on his own grounds—although we also reserve the right to challenge his operating assumptions.

“This statement also overlooks the facts that supernaturalism as a category is broader than just Christianity (for there are numerous versions of supernaturalism, Christianity merely numbering among them), and that supernaturalism is yet compatible with the view that the early Christians were deceived by hallucinations caused by a ruling consciousness which Christians themselves have misidentified. Christian apologists discount such proposals, even though they are equally implicit in supernaturalism as anything their theology teaches, typically by special pleading their position as they arbitrarily grant their assumptions primacy over alternatives which compete with theirs.”

i) Since this is no part of Dawson’s original argument, we did not overlook this “fact,” for this “fact” was nowhere in sight. There was nothing to look at, so there was nothing to overlook.

Dawson is now attempting to do a patch-up job on his original argument. That’s his prerogative, but if anyone was guilty of an oversight, it was Dawson, as he tries to backdate his exercise in damage control

ii) There is no onus on the Christian to disprove an “alternative” which neither the Christian nor his opponent takes seriously.

Bethrick doesn’t believe in supernaturalism, period. He doesn’t believe in some alternative supernatural explanation.

Hence, there is no burden of disproof on the Christian to rule out a hypothetical which his own opponent equally denies.

“All these wares that Paul [Manata] uses on a daily basis are ultimately a product of "naturalism," if by "naturalism" we mean that basic orientation of mind to the world which takes nature as its own authority on itself, as opposed to an orientation which takes seriously the imagination of a supernatural consciousness which is accessible by means of prayer, which controls nature at will and accomplishes its tasks by wishing. The achievements that are made not only possible but very real by naturalism, are unmatched by anything the religious mindset has ever produced.”

These examples are perfectly consonant with a doctrine of ordinary providence. In no way do they prove or even evidence the truth of naturalism. Dawson isn’t bothering to engage the argument.

“But it is interesting how theistic apologetics has no choice when the going gets rough but to resort to ultra-skepticism, which is another bait-and-switch tactic inspired by the deep confusion that Christianity introduces into one's epistemology. Questions such as ‘why trust our senses?’ can be dismissed as invalid on the basis of the fact that they commit the fallacy of the stolen concept. For how does one get to higher abstractions such as ‘trust’ if his senses did not already give him awareness of any objects in the first place?”

It is only a “stolen concept” if we assume an empiricist theory of abstraction. Obviously a rationalist would disagree.

“For Paul's question to be intelligible, the concepts he employs in forming that question would have to have objective content (otherwise he’s engaging in a purely subjective dialogue whose only point of reference is the shifting chaos of a mind that has no access to an objective reality).”

Dawson has done nothing to show how the mind can enjoy access to objective reality. To say that the alternative is pure subjectivity does nothing to disprove that alternative, but merely to draw attention to its consequences were it true.

“Thus if we doubt or dispute the validity of our senses, this can throw the question Paul asks into dire jeopardy long before we even get to it.”

Once again, this doesn’t show that we are not in dire jeopardy: merely the result if we were jeopardized by this consequence.

“Moreover, for me to acquire awareness of Paul’s question, I need to use my senses.”

i) Dawson is running into equivocations. To say that I must reply on my senses to answer Manata’s question doesn’t mean that my senses are reliable.

I may be subjectively dependent on my senses even though my senses are objectively unreliable. The word (“senses”) is defined in light of my sensory impressions, but that would still hold true in case my impressions were misimpressions.

When a man on acid jumps from the ledge of a skyscraper, he relies on his senses all the way down—including the sensation of pain when gravity catches up with him.

This doesn’t alter the fact that he was in a state of sensory impairment and fatally misperceived his environment.

ii) It is also incoherent of Bethrick to reject self-reference in connection with God (“the ruling subject serves as its own standard as well as the standard of everything it creates (which is said to be everything distinct from itself). In this way, the Christian effectually reduces what he might call 'objectivity' to pure self-reference by denying reference to any objects distinct from itself which exist independent of its intentions and resist conforming to its wishing”) only to reintroduce self-reference through the back door in defining self-referential statements regarding the senses.

“To ask 'why trust your senses?' is essentially no different from asking 'why think you are conscious?'"

To the contrary, there’s an essential distinction between the immediate, self-presenting states of consciousness and a mental representation of the external world which is mediated by our sensory processing system.

“ Such a question ignores the fact that thinking is an activity of consciousness. One would need to be conscious in order to consider the question in the first place. To ask ‘why trust your senses’ and similarly fallacious questions, suggests that the one asking it believes that consciousness needs to be validated somehow. But this would pose an insuperable problem for Paul, for he cannot validate his consciousness without assuming what he needs to validate it, thus the validity of Paul's consciousness, on his own assumptions, stands on circular argument whose premises ultimately rest in subjective paradoxes. Such is the outcome when taking stolen concepts to their conclusion.”

The analogy falls apart at the fundamental point of comparison. Where consciousness is concerned, there is no gap between appearance and reality—unlike sensory perception. Consciousness is self-validating in a way that sensation is not.

“But consider: If your arm were severed, would you ‘distrust’ your experience of pain? Would you have to prove that your experience of pain is real to those who believe in invisible magic beings in order for that experience to be real? Would you suppose it is legitimate to ask whether or not you're actually experiencing pleasure instead of pain as a result of the wound?”

The location of pain is a serious philosophical issue. What about phantom limbs?

“Yes, the validity of the senses is axiomatic in that the senses do not produce contradictions, are not conceptually reducible, are not established by means of proof, are not inferred from prior truths, are implicit throughout all perception and therefore in any knowledge statement (since knowledge is knowledge of reality, and this can be acquired only by specific means). Moreover, the validity of the senses must be assumed, even if only implicitly, in the very act of denying them. Remember that consciousness is an axiom. Since man’s initial means of awareness is perceptual in nature (where perception is the automatic integration of sensory material), the validity of the senses is indeed axiomatic.”

i) To say that “man’s initial means of awareness is perceptual in nature” simply assumes the truth of empiricism.

ii) The phenomena to which Dawson appeals is equally consistent with direct realism, indirect realism, phenomenalism, and idealism.

iii) Raw sensation isn’t true or false. It is merely a source of information. In this respect, the senses never deceive us.

That, however, does nothing to delineate the relation between appearance and reality.

iv) Manata, Engwer, and I do not deny the possibility of sense knowledge.

We are happy to concede that our God-given senses are often successful in transmitting accurate information about the external world.

The question, rather, is one of reasoning back from the successful outcome to the metaphysical conditions which make successful perception and communication possible at all.

And one related question is whether evolutionary epistemology conduces to skepticism.

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