Monthly Archives: December 2011
I normally would not bother with such questions, but I hope that the beauty of logic (and mathematics) could be appreciated more. Also, hopefully we can collectively learn to be more familiar with popular logical fallacies. One can start by learning about the more classical arguments for the existence of God. These include the Cosmological Argument and the Ontological Argument.
It was Bertrand Russell who noted of such arguments like the Ontological Argument that it “does not, to a modern mind, seem very convincing, but it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.”
Russell’s observation could very well be true for many of the newer, less classical apologetics from very obscure theological traditions (that seem incidentally quite isolated from the larger evangelical community). One argument is called the Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God (TAG). It is known not for its popularity but for its ability to become very long and convoluted.
Unsurprisingly, there are many distinct formulations of this argument that one can find at places like CARM. One of the more popular ones, formulated by Matt Slick, has inspired many refutations which you can both read and watch. For the purposes of this post, I will focus on a less formal version covered on this blog. It’s a rehash of the ideas of a relatively little known theologian named Cornelius Van Til.
The argument is given below with cute diagrams.
The Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God
The atheist offers many criticisms of Christianity. There must be a basis for such criticisms.
Truth claims like “Christianity is not true” employ logic, science, and ethics.
Logic, science, and ethics need to be accounted for. At the base of logic, science, and ethics are transcendental truths about reality. These truths, like the idea that the universe is consistent across time (see Hume’s Problem of Induction), that the law of noncontradiction holds, etc. are transcendental because they are not contingent on experience or consciousness.
How do we account for what is true? EITHER we are autonomous beings capable of understanding truth OR God decides what is true. This is the position of “non-neutrality”. Christians and atheists cannot agree on anything because the very idea of truth they hold is different.
As it turns out, the diagram above is wrong. It is impossible for a secular worldview to account for the transcendent absolutes that are the foundations of logic, science, and ethics. Autonomous man is trapped in his own experience and cannot by itself rationally justify the transcendental absolutes that allow for logic, science, and ethics.
The only alternative left is a Christian God who accounts for the transcendent absolutes that give rise to logic, science, and ethics.
For the Christian, everything is what it is because God says – and is – so… God is thus the prior and authoritative interpreter of all facts, and the truth of a proposition is equivalent to how well it conforms to God’s interpretation of the facts.
Therefore, the atheist who uses logic, science, and ethics to argue against Christianity presupposes that Christianity is true. This cannot be.
This argument, if valid, is a very damning one. By the author’s own admittance, this would throw out not only all secular criticism of Christianity, but also the arguments of Christians who argue for the existence of God from a neutral point of view (one that says we agree with atheists on some things.)
It has a further implication.
The argument I provided doesn’t a priori prove the truth of Christianity, it just says it’s not rational to assert anything else to be true. You could think that nothing is true, including the statement “nothing is true.” You would be left with radical nihilism, which rejects that the meaninglessness of truth claims is a reason for rejecting them, and can’t assert anything to be true, even itself.
It builds a strong choice between Christianity and absolute atheistic nihilism. It means either Christianity is true, or everything we know is meaningless. It would mean that atheists cannot make objective truth claims, and therefore cannot make a logical or moral argument without the Christian God.
Imagine that the only restaurant in town is one that serves only nihilism and Christianity, and you can’t order both.
Where does the fallacy lie?
There are many troublesome and outright fallacious parts of this argument. Many of these objections are interconnected, but we will start with an obvious one.
The most noticeable thing is that the Christian God is not well-defined as a solution. That is, there is no good reason to think that God solves the problems presented by TAG to atheists.
The Christian God, under almost all interpretations, cannot do evil. It is therefore also bound by the ethical absolutes and is therefore neither independent of ethical absolutes nor a possible interpreter of such “facts” because he cannot decide otherwise. Also the principle that God cannot cease to be God (or cease to be perfect, moral, loving, etc.) because of his nature (consistent with the law of noncontradiction) is also a transcendental absolute that limits God’s independence. This Christian God, bound by transcendental absolutes, when used in an argument like TAG, is clearly an example of referring the problem upward. In short, one must still explain why the absolutes transcend God. It is clear that the proposition of God in TAG is merely a semantic slight-of-hand to try to avoid explaining what is still not explained. If the rest of TAG is valid (which it is not), the Christian has the same problem as the atheist because there is no real account of the absolutes that God is also subject to.
Non-neutrality is nonsensical.
The false dilemma given in TAG is either that truth is God’s truth as he interprets it, or truth is what humans seek to interpret it as. Both of these positions on “truth” are nonsensical because, by citing a proper “authority” on truth, they make truth contingent on conscious minds (either God’s mind or human minds). The only working idea of truth is that it is independent of all minds (not just of human minds). The objectivist formalization of this principle is called the Primacy of Existence. Truth is neither decided nor created by humans; rather, truth is what is according to reality, and reality is that which is primary over consciousness.
The dichotomy of Autonomous Man vs. Christian God is therefore not only a false dichotomy, but also nonsensical.
The argument uses a fallacy of equivocation on the words “interpretation” and “truth”. When TAG says that what is true is what God interprets it to be, the direct meaning is that God decides what is true. This is utterly and blatantly confused with the concept of human interpretation of truth, which is not a process of deciding truth, but is rather an exercise of trying to understand what is true in the objective world; it is a mental exercise. Therefore, denying atheists the right to understand the objective world while allowing Christians the ability to understand God’s interpretation is a dishonest form of special pleading.
The assumption of truth-making “authority” is an incorrect premise.
TAG uses the connotation of the word “authority” and presupposes that there is something that grants authority to make truth claims (Man or God). This premise is not only unproven but is also clearly incorrect. Because the purpose of TAG is to show that only by assuming the Christian God can we make valid truth claims, we can merely show how valid truth claims can be made without the need to even mention authority.
As noted above, I believe that the assumption that Existence is Primary is necessary to make any truth claims. In fact, Christianity is nonsensical if the Primacy of Existence is not assumed. Otherwise, God’s existence would be contingent on God (or something else) deciding that he himself exists, which contradicts the fact that God must be eternal.
On the contrary, if we assume that the existence of all things is what it independently is; that is, all interpretations of X do not affect the actual existence of X. In this context, valid truth claims are simply made based on how well they conform to existence; they do not require ill-defined concepts like “authority” and “autonomy”.
TAG fundamentally misunderstands logical systems.
TAG at its core asks that logical systems must be fully accounted for, that is, they must be consistent and complete. Its solution of the Christian God, as I have shown, is not a solution but an incoherent deux ex machina. But a more fundamental problem is that it is searching for a solution to a problem that probably has no solution (see Kurt Godel).
Neutrality is correct.
There are two main reasons why neutrality is correct (and why non-neutrality is wrong). The first is that TAG fundamentally does not allow for probabilistic arguments. The need for a completely satisfactory answer to the Problem of Induction, for example, is a search for logical certainty about the validity of the inductive method (and therefore logical certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow given enough experience, for example). This is not only inconsistent with the spirit of scientific inquiry, but it also mistakenly excludes positions of neutrality.
Secondly, the Christian cannot be consistent without agreeing with many of the assumptions that atheists commonly hold. As in all logical systems, it is impossible to derive logical truth without some unprovable assumption. Atheists choose to believe assumptions like the Primacy of Existence and the reality that we are not Brains in Vats. Christians also believe this too, but also in addition to other theological claims that I have shown are neither necessary nor coherent.
TAG assumes neutrality.
TAG is made to convince the atheist that there are only two justifiable choices (nihilism and Christianity) based on commonly agreed knowledge. If it did not assume neutrality, then all attempts to refute TAG would automatically be wrong because the atheist cannot assert it to be wrong. TAG would then be a logical fallacy called begging the question.
Further comments and fallacies
Christianity does not solve the problems given by inductive skepticism; instead it exacerbates the problem. Hume’s critique of induction is that given that we see that the sun rises in the morning everyday, there is no reason to think that the sun actually rising tomorrow will happen rather than its negation, that is, the sun not rising tomorrow. Christianity, incidentally, says that it is indeed possible for the conclusions of induction to be invalid. That is, at any time, and at any moment, God may choose to suspend the laws of nature. This has happened not only at events like Joshua’s halting of the sun and , but also at events fundamental to the truth of Christianity, like the Resurrection of Jesus. Christianity itself is not consistent with the uniformity of the Universe.
Introducing a new form of pseudoscientific model that says the universe is uniform as long as God says otherwise is not only another form of special pleading, but it renders science as we know and use it today completely irrelevant (hence pseudoscientific). A scientific and inductive method that is accepting of supernatural phenomenon renders science absurd and opens the floodgates to unfalsifiable explanations like intelligent design and faith-healing. Christianity cannot account for science as we know it.
Let us ignore all the above problems and grant that TAG is 100% valid.
TAG does not hint at the existence of God and is therefore poorly named. TAG merely questions the logical absolutes that we hold and asks for an account of them. The proper conclusion of TAG (assuming it is 100% valid, which it is not) is that either that the Universe is completely nihilistic or that there is some mind accounting for logic, science, and ethics. This mind does not have to be a “god” in the perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful sense. This entity merely needs to be capable enough to interpret facts and create a rational, objective universe where logic, science, and ethics are valid.
Let us go even further and assume that TAG is 100% valid and does actually hint at the existence of God.
Then this God is not necessarily Christian. To show uniqueness would require not only serious theological interpretation of all current ideas of God, but also all existing and future conceptions of God. Specifically, TAG does not show how this supposed “God” sent a son down to Earth. It does not demonstrate the validity of the Adam and Eve “metaphor” or the revelation that Jesus is returning one day. It does not show much of what is essential in the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed to be true. TAG demonstrates almost nothing that is important in Christianity.
Therefore, even if we make the absurd assumption that TAG is valid, its final conclusion of reducing the only possibilities to nihilism and Christianity is a false dilemma, and a very bad one.
It was Bertrand Russell, of course, who wrote that many of the Ontological arguments reduce to “bad grammar” and “bad syntax”. I think this is a good paradigm for many of these “arguments for God’s existence”.
I personally find it hard to believe that the Christian God spread his message so well as to send his own Son to die in an illiterate and superstitious part of Palestine, only to not give any reasonable argument for his existence to be passed on. Rather, we have questionable 20th century “experts” on theology to tell us exactly how to think on their fallacious grounds.
I agree with many Christians who say that God “transcends all reason”. He is illogical, incoherent, and so blatantly nonsensicalthat human comprehension is impossible (and perhaps human knowledge of his existence is unattainable). It is clear that belief in God requires faith, and, as Kierkegaard might note, a mega-gigantic leap of faith. After all, it is faith that gives “evidence for things not seen, and the substance of things hoped for.” In short, it makes people think there is evidence when there is not, and it gives things for people to believe just to fulfill their wishes.
I hope you enjoyed it. If you didn’t, the good news is that I’m never posting one of these apologetic refutations ever again.
This is more awesome and more inspiring than any talking snake fable.
Religious (and other canonical) texts are not all bad. In fact, many of them contain profound moral insights and wisdom consistent with humanism. In discussions on morality, I find it disturbing when people say “if only everyone believed Religion X…” then the world would be a better place. Gross simplifications of this kind are just not good.
The challenge given below is to match each moral statement with one of the religious figures. Many of these statements are similar or the same, but each statement has a unique author.
|1. “Love means giving selflessly, excluding none and including all.”
2. “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.”
3. “Do not get angry or harm any living creature, but be compassionate and gentle; show good will to all.”
4. “Do you love your creator? Love your fellow-beings first.”
5. “Be not partial towards them in love above many others, but let thy love be for them as for thyself; and let thy love abound unto all men.”
6. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
7. “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love. This is the eternal rule.”
8. “Practice truth, contentment and kindness; this is the most excellent way of life.”
9. “Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.”
Easy? Hard? Feel free to comment on this quiz. But don’t cheat! I’ll post the answers in a few days.
The point of this is that it isn’t clear that the world would be a better place if we only followed one religion. Love and kindness are not Catholic values or Protestant values or Muslim values or Hindu values. These are human values, and it is about time we recognize them as such and work to make the world a better place together.
It’s a very interesting thought experiment. What if all knowledge of science and all religion suddenly disappeared from our memories?
Note that this is not a question about the impact on human life. Some really shallow theists may argue that without religion people will start killing each other on the streets. Most reasonable people would think we would go in the dark ages without science. We’re not interested in answering these questions.
What we’re concerned about is where human knowledge is heading, e.g., where our knowledge eventually converges.
If all scientific knowledge were to disappear suddenly, we’d eventually figure it out again. We might discover things in different orders, but we’ll eventually figure out the laws and constants of motion, for example. We’ll eventually understand basic chemistry and discover all the periodic elements. We’ll eventually find out that we are not intelligently designed, but evolved. We’ll discover the speed of light, and it’ll be very close to the value we have now. We’ll know the same relatively precise values for the weak force and the electromagnetic force, and we’ll have theories that describe reality accurately. We might have different terms for all of these scientific concepts, but the essential knowledge will be the same. Science is convergent.
If all religious knowledge were to disappear suddenly, we’d probably still develop religion, but it would be in a specifically different form. I actually want to clarify my statement because I actually suspect that a lot of the general arguments for the “new religion(s)” will be the same as religion now: we’ll probably still develop the Watchmaker argument and the First Cause argument. We MIGHT (but I’m not sure) develop the same garbage Ontological, Transcendental, and Cosmological arguments (but with different names). We’ll probably have some concept of guilt or sin, and there probably might be prophets born of virgins. Religions will probably still restrict people’s sexual lives, diets, and daily conduct. But religion as we know it today will be forever lost, replaced by newly developed religions that are specifically different.
Specifically different means that it wouldn’t be called “Christianity” or “Hinduism” or “Islam.” The prophets and miracles would probably take place in different times, with different characters, with different holy books. You might have to pray 3 times a day and not 5. You might have to face Los Angeles rather than Mecca. You might have to be sprinkled with holy pepper rather than water. It might be the Blessed Virgin Martha. There probably would be the “10 commandments” in some new religion (because of the magical number 10), but the commandments would probably not be the same. The rules for getting into the after-life probably won’t be the same (and the supposed after-life might be pretty different too).
Society would probably still be littered with dangerous superstition, but the overwhelming majority of people would still do good works, supposedly inspired by some good commandments in their holy books.
There would be extremists and moderates. There would be science-deniers and religious scientists. There might be the equivalent of witch-hunts, but there would also be powerful religious movements to fight against social injustice.
Religion is a peculiar thing, isn’t it? It’s a very interesting thought experiment indeed, but religion is not a convergent human endeavor. It’s a manifestation of our natures, projected into very deep metaphors that need, at the very least from time to time, to be subject to the forces of skeptical inquiry and secular criticism.
It’s 2.00AM Chicago time, and I spent the last few hours making this video. I’m reading Christopher Hitchens’ letter to the American Atheist Convention, an event that he missed because of his sickness. In his letter, Mr. Hitchens describes in unmatchable elegance the resolve we must have to fight for the future of humanity.
He was not flawless, he was far from perfect. But for all his faults, the world is truly a better, more secular, more loving, and more humanistic place.
(This is also the launch of the new Youtube channel of Inspirational Freethought. I do not know yet what content will follow, but I promise it will be worth your time.)
“We are captains of our soul and masters of our destinies… the fire was within us!”
This is a beautiful affirmation of humanism and a refutation of the pathetic idea that we need religion to lead good or meaningful lives. Thank you, Stephen Fry.
My Facebook feed surprises me all the time. This morning I woke up to the following video. It is of one of my former high school classmates who talks about her eight-week experience in Peru serving underprivileged children.
The problem with the format and presentation of such videos is that they do not have the sole and innocent purpose of giving an inspirational message; rather, they are first and foremost promotions of one’s own religion and beliefs. For example, she says she is inspired by the words of John the Baptist about the coming of Jesus, and says “that it was and remains a message of great hope… If only we hear the voice calling us, inviting us to testify to the Light.” For the millions of people who don’t believe in superstitious nonsense, the message of John the Baptist and of the legendary Jesus is an empty one. More importantly, it does not and should not have anything to do with our service and solidarity to our fellow human beings. We most definitely should not be giving an “if only” statement about religious belief, as if the main problem in the world is not enough people accepting the apparent “truth” of some message from the Middle East thousands of years ago. In short, for the millions of good, moral nonbelievers in this country, such testimonies are not only non sequiturs, but also serve to alienate.
I admit that I have not done anything as spectacular as going to Peru, and that is no person’s fault but my own. But whenever I have done something worthwhile, whether that is helping raise money for Doctors Without Borders, volunteering to teach chess at a local school, or giving out free hugs, I have never been asked, nor do I think I should have been asked, what religion I belong to. We should do work for goodness sake, and not because we are compelled to do so by a religious authority figure.
And when we do good works, we do should it humbly. We do it not to serve our religion, to serve ourselves and our salvation, but to serve other people. Saying that God’s voice is talking to me and telling me what to do is not going to cut it. This is so especially important because religion, beyond the core humanistic values that they all share, have served only to divide so many people for so long. It is about time we stop this and start serving our neighbor beyond the confines of our own religion.
It’s no surprise why in interfaith circles, everybody endorses values like “peace,” “cooperation,” “love,” and “service.” That’s because these are not Catholic values or Protestant values. They are not Christian values or Muslim values or Hindu values. These are HUMAN values, and the fact that they exist across multiple cultures and religions suggest that they transcend their respective religions.
This transcendent human morality, one that is valid across all religions, is the foundation of what we call humanism, and it has existed for tens of thousands of years. Humans were not raping and killing each other on the streets before Yahweh showed us the Ten Commandments or before Gabriel appeared before Muhammed. People like Confucius could write the Golden Rule before the time of Jesus. In fact, morality does not come in tablet or rule-based form, but exists in the heart of every person reading this post.
This does not mean that Christians cannot do good works. The overwhelming number of religious people, including my former classmate, have done enormous good in the world. The challenge, the “if only” I propose, is that we all reflect on how we can really build a better world. We should wonder whether associating common good works and packaging it in a specific religion is a good idea or simply an ultimately divisive, alienating, and counterproductive activity.
Take for example a very moving documentary I saw at Skepticon. It was called “Give a Damn” and it documented one atheist and two Christians who decided to travel across Africa together to experience life in the poorest parts of the world. They had great adventures and setbacks, including a devastating plane crash. They met wonderful people, helped many locals, and came back to raise awareness of about global poverty. The most important part of the documentary is that religion, for the most part, didn’t matter. Love and concern for people across the globe is a human experience and a human activity, and these wonderful people could talk about their experience without the need to proselytize or to bring in heavy theological baggage.
It is therefore a good question to ask, especially in this holiday giving season, what the motives are for many charitable organizations. The next time you put coins in a Salvation Army can, I ask that you think and learn more about the organizations you are supporting and giving money to. Think about whether you’re doing something because your religion tells you to, because you want some supernatural reward, or because you really want to. The road to Heaven, after all, is paved with bad intentions.