March 3, 2009

Answering Anselm (Slick v. Dillahunty, part 3)

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, Worldview tagged , , , , , , , , at 3:00 pm by Andrew

On a previous thread, commenter Anselm (probably not that Anselm, unfortunately) asks:

Doesn’t Matt D.’s strategy commit the atheist to support the Platonic objective reality (i.e., outside of spacetime) of things like numbers, logic, etc.? And isn’t that a strange position for a materialist to take (especially if he agrees with Carl Sagan that “the Cosmos is all there is, was or ever will be.” If numbers, etc. exists Platonically, then Sagan’s statement is not true, and the spaceless, timeless, immaterial reality in which theists say God exists is conceded.

I don’t think so. Here’s why:

First, I think even a hardcore materialist could advance Matt Dillahunty’s argument as solely an internal critique of the argument. That is, we assume for the sake of argument that Logical Absolutes (LAs) exist, and even under that assumption, the structural flaws Matt D. identifies in the unjustified leap from “Logical Absolutes” to “logic” renders TAG invalid. Since TAG is nothing more than a debater’s trick anyway, I think identifying the internal flaws in the argument itself is sufficient.

Second, I think Anselm highlights a popular misconception shared by many Christians that all atheists are hardcore materialists. That’s not the case. One can posit the existence — or, at minimum, the potential existence — of non-material things without abandoning the framework of methodological naturalism that causes one to demand empirical proof for empirical claims.

Finally, I should add that one can posit the “existence” of numbers or logical absolutes without conceding that they are transcendentally real in the Platonic sense; they could be transcendentally ideal a la Kant, for example. Thus, saying “five exists” is qualitatively different from saying that “five puppies exist” or “God exists.”


  1. Aaron said,

    I have a comment for andrew that I don’t want posted; can you e-mail me?

  2. Anselm said,

    Thanks for your response. The idea of an atheist conceding a nonmaterial reality beyond spacetime is logically possible, but would be quite strange, since that would be a profound move toward an ontology strikingly compatible with theism, and one that I suspect Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, etc. would find disturbing. They would likely react to such an “atheist” the way Daniel Dennett reacted to Robert Wright when Wright said he was open to the possibility that the mind was an immaterial entity separate from the brain (“epiphenominalism”): see

    As for Kant, his writing is notoriously opaque, but I understand his view to be that concepts such as number, the laws of logic, etc. are subjective categories inherent in the mind (brain) which are imposed on things-in-themselves, which can never be known as they really are. Thus such concepts have no objective existence (outside of minds).

    So there seem to be three alternatives:

    1) Numbers, laws of logic, etc. are subjective only
    2) Numbers, laws of logic, etc. have an objective existence independent of material reality
    3) Numbers, laws of logic, etc. have an objective existence as objects in the mind of God, who exists independent of material reality

    I believe Slick was trying to get at #3 (however incompetently). #1 makes sense on atheism, but requires giving up any objective truth-value for our mathematical or logical concepts. #2 is theoretically compatible with atheism, but only for a Platonist/atheist.

    I would be interested in your thoughts. Thanks.

  3. Andrew said,

    Aaron: done. In the future, you (or anyone) can send emails to evaluatingchristianity at

  4. Andrew said,


    1. I don’t want to be pedantic, but I think you’ll need to define what you mean by “objective existence” for me. In good faith, I can tell you in what sense I define the term: for me, “five” exists in the sense that in a universe without minds, when one rock rolls into a pile of four other rocks, the result is a pile of five rocks, and not some quantum indeterminacy whereby we have no idea how many rocks there are until someone observes them.

    I strongly suspect that your trilemma is nonexclusive, but I will defer judgment until I know what you mean by “objective existence.”

    2. For Kant, the categories of the understanding (including space and time) are empirically real but at the same time transcendentally ideal. He would thus reject your dichotomy that the categories of the understanding “have no objective existence.” I’m guessing that there is a (reasonably) straightforward article at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that goes into more detail on this.

    3. I strongly reject the notion that a transcendental realist is necessarily an epiphenomenalist; one can believe in transcendent entities but still have a (sensible) view of the brain in light of the overwhelming evidence we have that consciousness/mind is an emergent property of the brain. I’m going to put up a post that touches on this issue, probably later today.

  5. […] currently a discussion going on about this on the Answering Anselm thread, but in a nutshell: if objective truth exists, it exists descriptively rather than […]

  6. anselm said,

    Thanks for allowing me to clarify what I mean by “objectivity.” The axioms of Eucledian geometry, for example, are objective if they are true in all possible universes, even one with no minds, or that is entirely empty, undifferentiated space, or even if there were no universe.

  7. Andrew said,

    Anselm: Of course. I do think we’re speaking the same language.

    I don’t think I would agree that the axioms of Euclidean geometry are “true” in a universe that is nothing but empty, undifferentiated space. The Society of Kantians will probably revoke my membership over that. 🙂

    The larger point, though, is that I think one can concede that the axioms of Euclidean geometry are internally consistent a priori without contradicting the basics of evidential atheism.

  8. Matt said,

    Are you saying God is a number?

  9. Anselm said,

    Thanks for your response. The idea that mathematical axioms are only contingently true is consistent with atheism, but I would believe it would strike most rational observers as absurd (although I commend you for being willing to pay the price of embracing all the implications of your position).

    However, if one does not want to embrace the conclusion that such self-evident axioms are only contingently true, it seems to me there are only two options: either such axioms exist sui generis as separate entities (a la Plato’s forms); or such axioms exist as thoughts in the mind of God (i.e., they are necessarily true because they just are representations of the way God’s mind essentially thinks). Since the former position requires postulating a multitude of entities, the latter position can claim the value of greater simplicity, while avoiding the idea that the truth value of such axioms varies among possible universes.

  10. fujaro said,

    It does not at all strike me as absurd that mathematical axioms are dependent on the logical framework in which they were selected. The demise of Euclidean Geometry as an abolute framework for the geometry of our world, brought about by Einstein, is a clear warning sign that we should be very skeptical about the usage of the word ´absolute´. Furthermore, comtemporary science distinguishes different realms with their own logical framework. The logical axioms for the quantum world are as of yet not compatible with the logical framework as applied to the macro world of gravity. There is no proof that precisely one logical framework underlies all of reality. To claim that logical absolutes exist is to claim to know better than science. Essentially this is a claim for knowledge about absolute truth applied to reality. Anyone can see that inferring absolute existence from this premise is begging the question. Once the existence of anything absolute is granted, existence independent of physical reality is granted.

    Thought is not necessarily restricted to logical frameworks that fit to what we think is nature. In the TAG argument the word ‘absolute’ is stretched from it’s formal logical/mathematical implications to the broader realm of common language meanwhile giving a free ride to the idea that absolute includes applicability to nature. When logicians or mathematicians speak of absolutes they usually mean statements that within the logical framework they have chosen, cannot be doubted without leading to contradictions within that same framework. They usually don’t mean that their particular choice of logical framework necessarily underlies all of existence.

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