Sunday, April 21, 2013

Something versus Nothing

Somewhere, I thought that I had made the statement that the answer to the question "Why is there something rather than nothing" was "because there are more ways for something to exist". An example would be that the number of elementary particles in the universe could be more than they are in our universe, or less, or configured differently, etc. But I can't find the actual post. Regardless, Richard Carrier makes the same case in more detail at his FTB blog from March 2011 - somehow I missed this.

Scroll to the section "Getting Everything from Nothing".



Saturday, April 20, 2013

I'm a Skeptic

I've been toying around with writing a few paragraphs on what I believe - a position paper on life, if you will. While procrastinating on this, I ran across Brent Rasmussen's post on Vox Day's e-Book "The Irrational Atheist". It's about 4 & 1/2 years old, so it's not breaking news, but it's mildly interesting. My main impression was his mini-rant at the beginning, having nothing to do with the book review. He strongly criticized the "atheist movement" as
... a big, fat exercise in futility. Atheists are not, in any way, shape, or form, a "group" in the same sense that Methodists, Shriners, or Republicans are a group.
He went on to describe his atheism as just a single feature of his overall world view - a description that I think most non-believers would agree fits them as well.

In trying to describe myself, the word "atheist" absolutely describes me. But that's just an outcome of my more general skepticism. I'm going through life trying to fine-tune my scam filter, and I stop every so often to look at what that filter screened out. I'm having a good time doing it.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Final Reflections

Some final thought on presuppositionalism and the Pastor Stephen Feinstein - Russell Glasser debate.

First, I wasn’t trying to be intelleckshul or address the pastor’s points by raising objections or refutations - Russell’s original responses were all that was necessary. I was just trying to become familiar with the general concepts, and actual implementation of presuppositional apologetics. It was the pursuit of a personal interest. Reading a proponent’s actual words seemed to be the most direct way of doing this, and Feinstein was the most convenient example at the time. That I spent way too much time on this is the result of several things. Mostly, I was morbidly obsessed with the super-slow-mo train wreck that was Pastor Stephen. He fretted and strutted upon the stage for two rounds, then, when pressed by Russell to start making an argument, sprang into a manic blaze of volubility and circumlocution. He set two contentions for himself: “atheism is untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible" and "the Christian worldview is the only worldview that is possible given the preconditions of intelligibility“, and he didn’t make a case for either. Along the way, he claimed loudly and often that he was winning, that Russell was ducking the issues or smuggling in assertions or using smoke and mirrors, and that logic savages the “atheist position”. Never mind that outside the belief that there is no god, there is no such thing as an “atheist position”.

Secondly, I’m interested in stuff - and presupp qualifies as stuff. I usually think that I can figure stuff out, so the pastor’s opaque writing represented a challenge. I presumed there was something redeeming in the pastor’s words, but, sadly, I’ll admit that I didn’t find it.

Regarding Stephen’s first contention, he appeared to speak many of the words that could be used to make an argument that “some world view is impossible”, but he chose an atheist worldview as the target. Since such a world view exists only in the minds of presuppositionalists, further development of this contention was irrelevant. So most of his lengthy, circuitous, opaque rhetoric was wasted.

Stephen’s second contention was that the “Christian worldview is the only worldview that is possible given the preconditions of intelligibility”. Here again, it’s based on a presupposition that god exists. Stephen and Russell argued back and forth about this, with the pastor claiming that god is necessary, and Russell claiming that it’s a needless insertion. The pastor backed up his claim that god is necessary with a claim that “a necessary being is necessarily necessary!“ - thus sending me into fits of laughter. That’s the single most memorable quote of this whole debate.

Rounds four and five didn’t produce any new argument from the pastor - although he threw out the word “deduction” several times. Again, he follows a pattern of putting vaguely relevant words in proximity to each other, and calls it an argument. I can't say that anything meaningful registered. Yes, yes, the presuppositional argument has gone over my head. I get it.

The pastor wrote a sixth, post-debate “Final Reflections” piece, which I read before the end of last year, but I won’t mention it further here, other than to steal its title for this post. His post struck me as a display of poor sportsmanship at best. I don’t recall it clarifying what the pastor had already spent 20,000 words trying to say.

When Russell invoked a five round limit in round three, it raised the idea that some debate rules should have been agreed to and published before the debate started. The Carrier-O’Connell on-line debate might me used as a example. That debate contained a Joint Statement that described what each party was asserting, and a set of rules that would be followed once the debate commenced:
  1. There were four rounds: an opening statement defending their respective sides of the debated proposition, one rebuttal, one counter-rebuttal, then a closing statement.

  2. For each round, both participants submittals would be published simultaneously.

  3. There was a two week maximum duration between rounds.

  4. There was a 3000 word limit per submittal.

  5. There were to be no ad-hominem attacks.

  6. They agreed to a moderator and four judges.

  7. They agreed to adhere to the rulings of the moderator while the debate is in progress.

  8. They agreed to a scoring system.
I think that some or all of the Carrier-O’Connell rules would have resulted in a far cleaner, more enjoyable debate here.

What did I learn from Feinstein-Glasser?

I learned that presupp is based on bare assertion. It assumes a god. You don’t get to question that, because God is “necessary”. In the pastor’s particular implementation of the argument, the overarching goal was to paint a conjectural “atheist world view” as unintelligible, while presenting a Christian world view as intelligible. In neither case was it successful, as both contentions are based on fallacious arguments (a straw man, and the afore-mentioned bare assertion). The pastor wasted about 20,000 words on this endeavor.

In conclusion, I learned that a presupposition of any substantial scope should probably be rejected outright. Presupposing a god is of a scope of the greatest magnitude possible, and requires subjecting it to the greatest skepticism possible.

Whew! Glad that's over!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Pastor Feinstein's Last Gasp

Back in December, I originally imagined that I wouldn’t go through each post of the Feinstein-Glasser Debate point by point ... but I couldn’t help making another flyby over the last few weeks.

I’ve already spent a post on the first half of Pastor Stephen Feinstein’s fifth essay, and hope to put the remainder of this sordid episode to rest here.

a sordid episode

Remember, Stephen’s original contentions are "atheism is untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible" and "the Christian worldview is the only worldview that is possible given the preconditions of intelligibility", while Russell Glasser’s is “All else being equal, it’s better not to assume that something is true without good reasons“. If either interlocutor has chosen to change their contention(s) mid-debate, I’m having none of it.

The pastor’s fifth post does not improve the likelihood that anyone will be persuaded by his style of argument. He delivered a lot of words in such a disorganized, argumentative, unappealing and unpersuasive manner that it was nearly impossible to pick out the simple “what” and “why” that we'd normally expect in a debate.

I’ll skip straight to his summary and make snide remarks as appropriate. Trust me - they’re appropriate.

The pastor:
1. From the opening statement I made it clear that this is a battle of worldviews and that our presuppositions would be tested by transcendental logic to see if our worldviews are even possible. Russell has ducked this responsibility by openly admitting that he can take his worldview for granted and therefore does not have to put it to the test.
He sums up his overall strategy, and ironically exposes its weaknesses in the same paragraph. Case in point: he’s constructed this straw world view - the “atheist world view” - that immediately renders arguments built upon it fallacious. One demerit for the pastor.

He says “our presuppositions would be tested by transcendental logic to see if our worldviews are even possible”. This is unclear in several ways. First, his reference to transcendental logic is obscure. If he’s referring to Kant, fine, but we laymen largely don’t (and won’t) care about what philosophers think. If you’re a philosophy student, it’s crucial, but for everyone else, it’s a diversion from practical matters. Another demerit. He gives no hint how testing of presuppositions using transcendental logic would be performed, or how we'd draw a conclusion. One more demerit. And I defy him to restate this thesis in 500 words, and more importantly, to make me care.
2. Atheism is a philosophy like any other, even if Russell does not want to admit it. As a philosophy it is totally inadequate. Two arguments were used (though I hoped to use four): inductive inference and deductive inference. Both shattered Russell’s worldview.
Get a dictionary!
From Merriam-Webster:
Definition of ATHEISM

1 archaic : ungodliness, wickedness
2 a : a disbelief in the existence of deity
b : the doctrine that there is no deity
Two demerits for making shit up.
3. In my second response, I countered Russell’s statement about it being better not to assume things without good reasons. I said it is better not to assume the universe made itself through random processes. Notice that Russell did not object to my use of the word “random” at this point. Like every other atheist, he seemed fine with assuming chance-based origins.
Russell repeatedly corrected him on his misuse of the word "random" (random processes, random chance), but the pastor seems incapable of making the necessary adjustment. This “random process” dodge is just one component of his straw-atheist-world-view, so he probably can’t back off this ridiculous claim without watching his whole argument go up in smoke.
4. Once my third response refuted the possibility of a universe being grounded on chance, only then did Russell try to distance himself from the typical atheistic usage of the word "chance." Readers, this is a very telling point. Russell’s only recourse was to ignore syntax and say I misused the word, when in fact I did not.
See my notes on his point 3, above.

The pastor is trying to excuse or obscure his use of the word "random" by accusing Russell of running away from it, and by blaming Russell for incorrectly claiming that he (Stephen) misused the word. He doesn't address the larger point that his claim of "atheist world view" is bunk. All of this focus on trivia belies the larger point that has no basis in reality.
5. On more than one occasion, I brought up problems based on observation (farmers producing farms, workers making tractors, persons come from persons), which is contrary to everything Russell's position assumes.
He’s getting even more vague here. By making this oblique reference - "Problems based on observations" - he makes it ever more difficult to understand what he's talking about. We're left to either guess at it, to ignore it, or to go back and make a good faith attempt to dig out yet another argument. If he seriously wanted to make his arguments accessible to the public, he could have restated it here in a concise, direct and unambiguous form. Instead, he’s back to trying to get us to (as Russell has said) “mine out arguments that aren’t there”. Another reason that no sane person should spend more that a brief read-through of the pastor’s chaotic blather.

That puts me in the insane category.

6. Russell’s attempt to accuse me of circular reasoning was debunked in my third response as I demonstrated his position to be guilty of narrow circularity, whereas mine only had broad circularity (which is impossible for any position to avoid).
I took a look back at his third response. He does not mention “broad” at all, so where he dug that up from, I don't know. If you inter the googlenets, the only obvious reference to "narrow" and "broad" circularity is by theologian John Frame. He appears to be introducing "degrees" of circularity that might be used to make it appear that an apologist's Argument "A" seem more plausible than a counter-apologist's Argument "B", if it can be shown that B is narrowly circular in comparison to A's broad circularity. This is theological wordplay at its most desperate.

Face it, Stephen asserts that God exists. Russell asserts that nature exists and that God is a needless insertion. Both participants require some bedrock principle from which to build a world view. Russell pointed this out many times, but Stephen claims only God can be used as an axiom, and Russell doesn't get to play by those rules. The pastor still refuses to recognize that this is perfect example of special pleading.

One demerit.
7. Russell on more than one occasion attempted to get out of his dilemma by appealing to a magical tiara in such way as to say that is what my position amounts to. This demonstrated a great lack of philosophical precision on his part and that the presuppositional argument from the uniformity of nature was not understood by him. I believe even now, at this point of the debate, he still has not really attempted to refute it. A God that is an absolute person, that is distinct from creation, and sovereign over it, and triune indeed does meet the necessary preconditions for the uniformity of nature. Think on each of the four points, and it does not take a rocket scientist to see how these can account for uniformity. Russell's response? A magical tiara.
The pastor tends to “loop” back on every real or imagined attack, and attempts to clarify and/or defend his position from these attacks. He wastes a lot of words on trivia, while reminding us of some of his more absurd presuppositions. Here he tries to cast Russell’s “magical tiara” as philosophically imprecise. Russell was ridiculing him - plain and simple. The pastor makes it worse by reiterating his own worst assertions: “A God that is an absolute person, that is distinct from creation, and sovereign over it, and triune indeed does meet the necessary preconditions for the uniformity of nature.“

Three demerits for transcendentally bad reasoning.
8.Throughout Russell’s third and fourth response it is clear that he did not understand the necessary vs. contingent argument.
Holy crap.

holy crap

The pastor thinks his claim that “a necessary being is necessarily necessary!“ is sufficient to overcome all objections. I wonder if he ever proof-read this. He’s gotta be embarrassed.

I’m sure he feels the “necessary vs. contingent argument“ is a knockout winner, but he ignores the bare assertion inherent in it.

Bonus criticism: he jumped the rails at the outset when he declared all of science to be in the realm of philosophy. As if the idea that something is philosophically true has any bearing on the real world. Maybe his mom wouldn't let him play outside with the other kids when he was little. There has to be an explanation.

9. My fourth response was a refutation of everything Russell said in his third response, which was the closest thing he gave in terms of counterarguments. However, his argument was that he is permitted to take his assumptions for granted as long as he hides behind the concept of axioms. He then went back to the tiara again. I removed this misguided attempt throughout the fourth response.
We see a couple of things here:
1. He’s obsessed with every point (see my comments on his note 7)
2. He assumes that his fourth post was immune from objection, refutation and ridicule.

I’ll assume that the pastor would respond to my comment above with a hearty “Oh yeah? Prove it!”. But I won’t let him <snark>smuggle in his smoke and mirrors</snark>. Russell did a fine job in his fourth post. Nuff said.
10.Finally, this last response of mine demonstrated how the laws of logic savage the materialist’s worldview, and I forever buried Russell’s straw man argument against the Christian view of logic.
More delusions of grandeur. How does he think his fifth post savaged anything? I just read it for the umpteenth time, and it was as vacuous and convoluted as anything he’s written so far. And longer. And more tedious.

The pastor may be doing this on purpose - stringing together sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph of loosely related terms in order to insure that no rational human being would have the interest or stamina to decipher and address the points that he believes he’s made. Thus - says he - he wins. Is anyone persuaded by this in the least? I don’t think so.
11. Truly, Russell’s last response was nothing more than bravado. Serious arguments damaged his position, and his best defense was to play it off as though it did not affect him. My hope is that the readers look with keen eye and mind and see that he did not nullify a single argument made by me. They all still loom over him.
Bravado. Hmmm. Could the pastor be “projecting”?
12. I responded to his attempted arguments and I feel they were soundly silenced.
Okay, now I’m absolutely sure he hasn’t proof-read this. Does he mean that he feels his responses were soundly silenced? See how unclear even a single sentence of his can be? Multiply that to arrive at 7800 words. Commence serious drinking immediately.

Bonus criticism: Why should we accept that his feeling that “they were soundly silenced“ relevant? Opinion is cheap - evidence and rational justification should be at a premium.
13. Finally, it only took Russell four days to respond to my opening statement. No argument was made, and so no pressure was placed on him. I responded to him within two days, where I only slightly began to introduce the way the argument was going to go, and it took Russell eight days to respond. I then responded in two days again, and this time I advanced the first argument (inductive inference). In this case, now that the argument was coming against Russell, it took him nearly two weeks to respond. Since I was driving across the country at that time, it took me four days to respond to his eventual post, but then after that it took nearly five weeks to get a response from Russell. I am sorry, but for all of the bravado, why is it taking so long? If these arguments of mine are so easy to dismiss and counter then we shouldn’t be seeing this kind of delayed time. We’re both busy men. The time it takes to receive responses betrays the confidence and bravado in Russell’s responses.
You can see how peevish the pastor comes across in this final point - he picks on the duration between responses as if it impugns his opponent. Good Dog, I could give a shit.

It’s taken me five months to accept the fact that presuppositionalism in general, and Pastor Stephen Feinstein specifically, delight in the “impenetrable quasi-philosophical wankery” that Russell first characterized back in October.

It was a learning experience, but not very uplifting. It’s sobering, even slightly depressing, to see that people that have influence over other people, can be so deluded and so aggressively defensive of their delusion. I suspect that the world is not a better place with people like this in it. We can only know that they walk among us, and that we can cross the street and avoid them if we encounter them. As the centuries pass, my fervent hope is that his brand of wackiness is rarer and rarer, until there are so few exponents of it that they don’t dare poke their flat little heads out of their caves, for fear of being carted off to a hospital for round-the-clock care.