4. Atheism is Not a “Worldview,” and Presuppositionalism is Incoherent.
4. Atheism is Not a “Worldview,” and Presuppositionalism is Incoherent
This post is my ongoing set of arguments answering objections to my Summary Case for Atheism, in which some Christians argue that it is reasonable to believe that non-material things exist. In many cases, this argument is extended to include the claim that atheists subscribe to a “worldview” that arbitrarily excludes the supernatural. This general argument is also extended into a subspecies of presuppositionalist arguments that are designed to show that atheism is internally inconsistent.
I contend that a) atheism isn’t a worldview, b) that my arguments survive the shared worldview both of the atheist and the theist, and c) presuppositionalism is incoherent and thus no argument for theism.
A. Atheism is not a worldview by definition.
This is such a basic issue that I’m surprised the “worldview” argument has taken such hold in contemporary apologetics.
As Wikipedia helpfully tells us, a “worldview” is defined as one’s comprehensive framework for evaluating the world, including theories of why we are here, where we’re going, how to get there, how to behave, and so on.
On face, then, atheism cannot be a worldview, because different atheists have different answers to those questions! In terms of ethics alone, we know that some atheists are Randians; some are Bethamite utilitarians; some follow more closely to John Stuart Mill; some are even Kantians. Many atheists follow Hume’s theory of epistemology, but many others do not. And so on. If atheism does not provide a single answer to these fundamental questions, it cannot be a worldview, by definition!
B. Atheism Does Not Mandate Hardcore Materialism.
i. Methodological naturalism
I think many Christians want to label atheism a worldview as part of a chain of argumentation that goes something like this: atheism means hardcore materialism, and hardcore materialism is self-contradictory; therefore, atheism is self-contradictory.
But, of course, nothing in atheism mandates hardcore materialism. At most, atheists believe in methodological naturalism, which says (roughly) that empirical claims require empirical evidence. (All of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, share this limited aspect of “worldview” — otherwise, we’d be awash in a sea of credulity.)
ii. No bias against miracles
Contrary to the arguments of some Christians, nothing in this limited methodological naturalism rules out the supernatural a priori. Consider, for example, J.B. Rhine’s parapsychology experiments at Duke beginning in the 1930s with Zener cards and the like. (These experiments are parodied in the opening scene of Ghostbusters.)
Now as it turns out, Rhine’s studies were inconclusive at best (and in many cases, faked), but *had* they revealed statistical evidence for ESP, atheists would have had to take those results seriously using the principles of methodological naturalism. Similarly, double-blind efficacy-of-prayer studies seem to me to be a good way to test for the supernatural; it’s just that — like ESP — all of those studies to date have either been inconclusive or faked.
In other words, methodological naturalism contains no inherent bias against miracles.
iii. No equivalence between worldviews
In addition to contending that atheists have an unfounded “bias against miracles,” Christians also sometimes use the concept of “worldviews” to suggest that it is reasonable to just postulate or assume God’s existence as part of a “worldview” because atheists are doing the same thing in reverse. This claim is sometimes expressed as the argument that “Atheists put just as much faith in science as Christians put in God.” (Here’s that argument made by Stanley Fish, for example.)
I show that argument is fallacious because the worldviews of both the Christian and the atheist begin with methodological naturalism as a means of evaluating empirical claims — like whether certain things ‘exist’ or not. It is only the Christian worldview that then postulates additional unsubstantiated claims that contradict the underlying methodological-naturalist worldview both parties share.
Thus, it is not reasonable to equate the “faith” an atheist has in science with the faith a Christian has in Jesus.
iv. God Is Not Like Other Non-Material Propositions.
Finally, Christians sometimes contend that other non-material things “exist” — like mathematics, love, morality, and the like. My short response is that these things exist as abstractions, as contingent upon the human mind. For example, we can arguably say that “five” exists — but only because we can either rationally comprehend “five” as a component of pure mathematics or because we can count out five apples, five puppies, and the like.
Note that this limited claim is, in turn, contingent on empirical verification. For example: it would obviously make no sense to claim that “five” exists, but that it was simultaneously impossible to tell if a pen full of puppies contained five, or fifty, or five million puppies. Similarly, “love” may be an abstraction, but it too manifests itself to our senses, both electrochemically in the brain and in terms of extrinsic behavior.
If someone wants to claim that God exists in the limited, contingent way that “five” or “love” exist — as an abstraction or a human mental concept — then I don’t disagree with them. But that is not Christianity.
C. Presuppositionalism is incoherent.
Initially, I had left off a section on presuppositionalist ethics from this blog, because to me, they’re not the sort of arguments that real people offer in real discussions to explain why they believe in God. No, presuppositionalism is a school of apologetics built on definitional wordplay, strategic argumentation and deliberate obfuscation. It’s a polysyllabic version of what Greta Christina calls the “Shut Up, That’s Why” school of apologetics. At the end of the day, the presuppositionalist’s goal is to “win” his debate, not listen to what you have to say. (If you don’t believe me, check out this handbook from one particularly obnoxious presuppositionalist.)
Presuppositionalism is a slippery term, but in general it refers to a class of apologetics that argues that the atheist “worldview” is internally inconsistent whereas the Christian worldview is internally consistent. One specific implementation of this argument is the Transcendental Argument for God (“TAG”). It goes something like this:
(1) We should compare the ‘atheist worldview’ to the ‘Christian worldview’ to see which is a better starting point.
(2) The ‘atheist worldview’ posits hardcore materialism such that no intangible things exist.
(3) But intangible things do exist; therefore, the atheist worldview is internally inconsistent. Usually, this part of the argument takes the form of either: (a) an assertion that logic exists (as set forth in the TAG); or (b) requests that the atheist explain some largely unresolved problem in philosophy, such as the problem of induction.
(4) When the atheist cannot solve the problem of induction or explain the epistemology of logic in 30 seconds, the presuppositionalist declares an irresolvable conflict within the ‘atheist worldview.’
(5) The presuppositionalist then asserts that the Christian worldview is not internally inconsistent, because (a) it posits that intangible things exist, and (b) it can “explain” anything with the assertion that God did it.
(6) Therefore, Jesus.
That’s it. As you can see, presuppositional apologetics is really more of a debating tactic than an actual argument; I can’t imagine a skeptic actually being convinced by this sort of wordplay. But it has been effective in catching atheists off guard; see, e.g., Dan Barker’s atrocious debate with Paul Manata.
Upon inspection, virtually every component of the presuppositionalist argument is just dead wrong.
Start with premise (1). First, atheism is not a worldview. Second, the argument creates a false dichotomy whereby the presuppositionalist declares his worldview internally consistent, attacks what he believes to be the atheist’s worldview, and then argues his wins by default.
The simplest way to defuse presuppositionalism, then, would be to say: “I am not an atheist. I believe in the almighty god Zxqorbleen.” Then, when asked to account for X or explain Y, simply assert that “Oh, Zxqorbleen does that.” Zxqorbleen created the universe, made the laws of logic, ensures that nature is consistent, provides for inductive reasoning, whatever. At the end of the day, the presuppositionalist will be left with two assertive worldviews, both of which declare themselves to be internally consistent, and no means of comparing the two. On the other hand, you have to pretend to be an idiot to execute this kind of strategy, and you know the old aphorism about that.
Premise (2) is also false, and it’s probably one of the most basic misconceptions Christian apologists have about atheists. Immanuel Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, to pick one example, provides for an entirely secular theory of a priori knowledge. Put more simply: when the theist insists that logic (or morality, or whatever) is universal and independent of human experience, one can simply reply: “Sure, it’s inherent in the human brain and a priori to experience. That doesn’t make it magic.” Kantian epistemology also cleanly answers the question of logic’s supposed ‘transcendental’ qualities; it’s one of the categories of the understanding. So what?
Claim (3) is the meat of the discussion and has been discussed at length elsewhere. I think the slipperiest aspect of the claim that a particular intangible thing “exists” is to pin down precisely what the apologist means by the word “exist.” As I set forth above, I think it’s intuitive that “five” exists — but that does not mean that it exists in the same way that five puppies exist or as a kind of Platonic ideal. Any apologist claiming that “logic” exists to a greater extent than “five” exists has the burden of justifying that claim.
I have never seen a presuppositionalist debater even attempt to do so. Instead, when challenged on the objectivity of logic, the debater will spout of a deliberately illogical stream of nonsense, declare victory, and then invite the atheist to dispute his conclusion — which, the Christian argues, means that the atheist must concede the transcendence of logic after all.
But this is nonsense. An appeal to performative contradiction doesn’t even prove that logic is absolute; all it shows is that the parties to the debate agree, broadly speaking, that logic governs their discussion. This isn’t even proof of intersubjectivity; after all, it’s not uncommon for two people to share a subjective appreciation for art, or a particular sports team, or what have you. The fact that the Christian and the atheist agree to debate using logic proves nothing more than the agreement itself. Logic is self-evidently neither “universal” or “transcendent”; instead, logic is a convention to describe how human brains process information. That’s it.
Premise (4) also smuggles in the assumption that ‘I don’t know’ equals ‘It’s not possible.’ But philosophy doesn’t work that way. For example: John Locke argued for an entirely materialist/reductionist epistemology; ideas were, on Locke’s view, the faint residual impressions of leftover empirical observations. Locke recognized that his epistemology lacked a mechanism for induction, but he considered that an unresolved problem, not an unresolvable one.
Now personally, I think Lockean empiricism is all wet as a theory of epistemology. But it’s not self-evidently crazy, and it seems absurd to hold a debater to a higher standard than John Locke.
Finally, it is worth holding the presuppositionalist’s feet to the fire with respect to assertion (5). Christianity emphatically is not consistent with either a universal, transcendant logic or with the uniformity of nature required to validate induction. Here’s why:
a) The trinitarian concept of God violates the law of identity. God the Father is God (A=B). But Jesus is also God (C=B), and the Holy Spirit, too, is also God (D=B). Via the transitive property, then, it is obvious that A=B=C=D, and God the Father is Jesus, both of whom in turn are also the Holy Spirit. Christians, however, almost uniformly have considered this simple application of logic to have been heretical for the past 1800 years. When the apologist asserts that Jesus is not identical to God the Father, he is asserting that A is not A, and hence violating one of the basic laws of logic.
b) Similarly, the Christian worldview is one in which miracles are possible. By definition, then, nature is not uniform, and there is no basis for inductive reasoning.
D. The Dillahunty Gambit
On the February 22, 2009 episode of The Atheist Experience, Matt Dillahunty gave perhaps the most interesting refutation of TAG I have ever heard. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of how I would have approached it, which I think turned out to be the near-optimal strategy. The unorthodox nature of Matt D.’s responses clearly threw Matt Slick (the presuppositionalist apologist) off of his game such that by the end of the 48-minute exchange, Slick was left with nothing more than belligerently repeating a nonsense question.
Let me emphasize that I do not agree with the argument Dillahunty makes; I am not convinced that Logical Absolutes (LAs), for example, exist. But I think Dillahunty’s argument is an excellent internal critique of TAG — assuming, for the sake of argument, that the premises are true, the conclusion remains unjustified. Since TAG is nothing more than a debater’s trick anyway, I think identifying the internal flaws in the argument itself is sufficient.
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.”
Here’s my summary, but you really should listen to the entire debate:
1. Matt D.’s unconventional strategy began by first conceding the premises of TAG; namely, that logical absolutes (LA) are transcendental, universal, and absolute. I think this was strategically very smart, because Slick is obviously prepared for opponents who challenge the premise; his response is to sarcastically blurt out a string of non-sequiturs and then insist that he’s won the debate because you can’t agree on the conventions of logic.
This, of course, is just Slick’s debating trick. The fact that two people agree to the conventions of logic as a prerequisite for a discussion does not prove that those conventions are transcendent or absolute, any more than two people who agree that Bert Blyleven belongs in the Hall of Fame somehow proves that he’s transcendent. (Blyleven’s curveball was good, but it wasn’t that good.)
It is, of course, a popular misconception of atheism that presumes that all atheists are hardcore materialists. 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. Indeed, the atheist can even 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.”
2. Next, Matt D. pointed out the equivocation between Logical Absolutes (LAs), which he conceded are absolute and transcendent, and the application of those LAs in human logic, which is not. Human logic, Matt D. argued, is contingent on the existence of a mind to apply the LAs.
3. Then — and this was the key to the debate — Matt D. demonstrated that Premise 6.A of Matt Slick’s TAG deliberately palmed a card by using the word “logic” in place of the phrase “Logical Absolutes.” In doing so, Slick conflated the ontology of the Logical Absolutes themselves with the application of those LAs by humans, thus artificially ascribing a characteristic to human reason (transcendence) that by itself would be internally contradictory.
4. In his own writeup of the “debate,” Slick still either doesn’t understand or pretends not to understand this distinction. Instead (as you’ll see from the link), his counterargument is to set up a false dichotomy between “physical” and “conceptual” and then claim that anything that is non-physical is by definition conceptual, and therefore contingent on some mind.
Matt D. answered this objection at the beginning of the show by calling this out as a false dichotomy and pointing out at least a third possibility: abstractions. For example — this is mine, not Matt D’s, but is adapted from the show — “five” exists as a concept in my mind when I picture five puppies and is thus a concept. In a hypothetical parallel universe identical to our own but with no minds, there can be no “idea” of “five puppies,” because there are no minds capable of generating such an idea.
But — and this is the point Matt D. made forcefully, and Matt Slick simply ignores — in such a universe, “five” still exists as an abstraction. Otherwise, when one puppy runs up to a group of four other puppies in that alternate universe, Matt Slick must believe that could be a pack of eighty-seven billion puppies if there are no minds around to “enforce” the fact that 1 + 4 = 5. That’s a strange argument, to say the least.
Another commenter on The Atheist Experience blog points out that under Slick’s dichotomy, God himself is only a concept, because he’s not physical!
Since logical absolutes, by Slick’s own definition, exist independent of any mind, they provide no evidence for God. Indeed, as Slick concedes early on in the broadcast, God himself cannot make a square circle or make A equal not A, so logical absolutes constrain God.
The bottom line is that there are multiple strategies available to the atheist to respond to the belligerence and incoherence of the TAG argument; these two sections simply highlight two of them.
E. The Christian “worldview” has no explanatory power.
Finally, Premise (5) of the presuppositionalist argument asserts that the Christian “worldview” can explain things like the existence of logic. But in reality, the Christian worldview does no such thing.
Let’s start with first principles: what does it mean to give an “explanation” for something? One need not accept Kant’s epistemology to nevertheless recognize the distinction Kant drew between (1) the analytic and (2) the synthetic. An analytic explanation is one where the explanation is derived entirely from the predicate of the proposition; put more simply, when I say, “That object is a triangle, because it has three sides,” I have given an analytic explanation. I haven’t told you anything about the triangle that you didn’t already know, because the definition of a triangle is that it has three sides.