Monday, December 10, 2012

Impenetrable Quasi-philosophical Wankery

Presuppositionalist apologetics asserts that "the acceptance of the proposition 'God exists' and the truth of the Christian Bible is necessary in order for the world to be intelligible". We were treated to a public example of presuppositionalism in the online "discussion" between Pastor Stephen Feinstein & Russell Glasser this summer and fall. I've made some passing references to the discussion previously: here, here, here and here.

I took my sweet time reading all ten of the "official" posts - plus an eleventh parting shot from PSF - mainly because the Pastor's first two posts had all the literary charm of a grocery list. He didn't seem anxious to make his argument(s). Instead, he wanted to reject the idea of self-evident truths (axioms in Russell's parlance, "preconditions" in the Pastor's), and argue that Russell's axioms needed explaining or justifying, while his own preconditions (God) did not. It was grade-school stuff.

The prior paragraph is worth emphasizing.

Feinstein assumes that the existence of God to make the world intelligible requires no proof or justification, whereas he demands proof or justification for natural axioms that make the world intelligible as declared by Russell. That double standard really prevents establishing common ground on which the two parties can communicate.

The rest of us amateur counter-apologists might do well to point out that hypocrisy at the beginning of any street debate with a presuppositionalist, and terminate the discussion if he isn't willing or able to present objective evidence or a sound argument for God before proceeding.

Or suggest the following:

Returning to the written discussion:

While the presuppositionalist axiom "God exists" remains a matter of conjecture in the reality-based community, its corollary that "the truth of the Christian Bible is necessary in order for the world to be intelligible" relies wholly on God's existence - without which it is meaningless. In Feinstein's posts, we are offered no justification for these claims, which renders anything based on them irrelevant. He could have just stayed home, for all the meaning he was able to impart.

Let me turn to what I think PSF's core argument was supposed to be - the Transcendental Argument for God ("TAG"). Here's the short form:
  1. If there is no god (most often the entity God, defined as the god of the Christian bible), knowledge is not possible.
  2. Knowledge is possible (or some other statement pertaining to logic or morality).
  3. Therefore a god exists.
We never saw the argument in this canonical form anywhere in PSF's posts, although he refers to a "Transcendental Argument" in round four, implying that he'd either presented it earlier, or that Russell was expected to understand it without the Pastor having to articulate it. By rereading his first three posts, we can guess, in retrospect, that he recognizes the TAG syllogism in his thinking, but he never expresses it in writing. Regardless, TAG is refuted easily because the first premise relies on the conclusion - a classic circular argument. He wasted thousands of words on this.

In PSF's first post, he establishes his position:

"I plan to debate the issues, and why I believe atheism is untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible."
"I affirm that the Christian worldview is the only worldview that is possible given the preconditions of intelligibility."

Immediately I'm struck by the "atheism as a world view" perspective. Since atheism is lack of belief in a personal deity - and only that - we'll see him construct a more elaborate and hypothetical "atheist world view" that he will then tear down - an obvious straw man. This seems like a common theme used by theists - "atheism is a world view" or "atheism is a religion", yet atheism is (say it with me, people!) an intellectual stance on only one topic. I think this might be worth the atheist community re-emphasizing: It's. Just. One. Topic. It's. Not. A. Religion.

You'll note that the Pastor, besides skipping merrily past an argument for the existence of God (any god, let alone a Christian one), also fails to demonstrate that lack of belief in a deity - atheism - is "untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible". At this rate, I'm betting that it will be decades before PSF is able to stake out a claim as a middle-tier apologist.

PSF further asserts:

"All science, all theories of cosmology, all viewpoints of anthropology, and just about everything else falls under the scope of philosophy and specifically epistemology. As a result, I am going to push all of our arguments into this realm, because it is where they belong by logical necessity."

This claim is a good case of "making shit up" - very philosophical sounding. What reason do we have to accept his claim? The actual practices and products of cosmology and the other "-ologies" belong in the real world where they presently exist, and where their hypotheses can continue to be tested, evaluated, discarded, or modified. The strategy of making this a philosophical discussion just screams "THIS IS NOT ABOUT REALITY".

Okay then ...

I won't go through each post individually. PSF's are a train wreck (although they inspired a morbid fascination) - and Russell shows obvious irritation in his third and fourth posts as the train wreck tumbles into the ravine. I'll still recommend them, however, because they illustrate the magical world view that assumes that the supernatural exists and has some influence on our lives. In general, this series was mostly mud-wrestling about how we can know things, none of which addresses the question of whether a god could exist and be responsible for "intelligibility".

Some other general comments:

One, a shortcoming in the debate format may have been the lack of more formal rules. Neither PSF nor RG state the proposition that they're discussing prior to beginning their theses. Readers can assume it's "Does God exist?", but the discourse would probably would have benefitted from some debating conventions to help the participants "flow".

Two, PSF is the poster child for circumlocution. He apparently thinks he has a knock-down argument to make, he starts talking and he just can't stop. It's almost as if he didn't know what the point of each of his posts was. He just circled for a while and stopped after he was tired of circling. He filibusters for two or three posts - promising in the first two to make his arguments soon - before RG "gives him something he can work with". We might suppose the Pastor's strategy was to rope-a-dope until Russell blurted out something that he could attack. Since I expected PSF to be making an "Affirmative Construction", this stood out like a sore thumb.

In fairness, the Pastor's first two posts were a decent length, had they contained his positive arguments. The following three were way too long. To illustrate, here's a (reasonably accurate) word count of all five - plus his sixth, unsolicited parting shot:
  1. 1822
  2. 2879
  3. 5480
  4. 5478
  5. 7813
  6. 2780 (PSF's self-solicited bonus post)
Let me contrast them to an imaginary 20 minute "First Negative Construction" that I wrote in October - it was 3489 words, including section headers and salutation. My post requires verbal delivery at a pretty good clip, because of its length. I've timed it twice - just to be sure it conformed to a twenty minute limit. If you followed the 20-12-8-5 minute debate format that you often see Dr. William Lane Craig engage in, then my word count should have diminished to 2091, 1396 and 872 over a four round debate. Feinstein's grew by a hilarious amount. His Round Five effort would have taken 45 minutes to deliver if given at a similarly brisk pace.

Three, another peeve: PSF was whiny. In round three, PSF uses "disappointed", "feared", "condescending" and other personal or emotionally-tinged words that just rub me the wrong way. Toughen up Pastor! Have Faith - or something. :-D

All said, there wasn't anything in PSF's lengthy circumlocutions that would persuade a non-believer that god exists. You might not have the patience to sit through it all, even if there was something there.

In contrast (yes, I'm biased), I appreciate the way that RG conducts his end of the discussion. He's much more concise, he didn't have to construct an elaborate straw edifice to knock down, and he didn't have to maneuver the discussion out of the real world into the world of epistemology and philosophy where anything can be rationalized. He was able to pretty much say, "here's what exists, here are axioms that are self evident, and here's how we apply observation and reason to build a knowledge base."

Russell sums it all up this way:

"Presuppositionalists don’t present evidence. They balk at the notion that they should attempt to persuade. They delight in impenetrable quasi-philosophical wankery. They toss in little jibes like “You know in your heart of hearts that I am right.” And then they go for the big finish with the “On your knees, sinner!” speech.

When all is said and done, we might as well be trying to convince people in the modern world that Ra is still necessary to explain the movement of the sun."

"Impenetrable quasi-philosophical wankery" ... Yeah, we saw that!

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