Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Reason Strikes Back: Revenge of the Nihilist

In this post, Rhology's quotes shall be in Verdana, whilst my rebuttal shall be in standard Arial.Ed.

Greetings, Rhology!

Rhology: In response to this post...the JN and John Morales apparently want me to write my positions in my own words, make a big deal out of it. I understand, but at the same time, I'm parroting and expounding on Bahnsen's ideas. You may consider his words mine in this case (it’s not imitation, it’s emulation ;-) ). Not everyone has time like apparently the JN has to type stuff. Though I could wish I did.

Nihilist: Obviously, the fact that you, to this point, had not explained your own ideas was problematic. However, I do not consider it the central weakness of your presentation, because I think your arguments (borrowed or not) range from unconvincing to specious. In any event, I simply mean to show that, for example, I never say, “I believe what Dr. Dawkins believes,” in response to one of your points. I think people should articulate their own arguments in their own words. Again, however, this issue is not one in which we should become ensnared.

Rhology: Unfortunately, the conversation has degenerated into a Who's Begging the Question Worst? match. Consider this most recent offering from the JN.

“You asked that I provide evidence that could substantiate the value of evidence. I did precisely that. My first principle, as I repeatedly have said, can be summarized as “The road to truth is paved with evidence.” That is, in order for human primates to happen upon truth (or its close approximation), the most reliable route is that of evidence (or, alternately phrased, the relevant facts).”

Of course, what's the predictable response from me? Yep - Fine, evidence is the evidence for the idea that the best way to discover truth is to examine evidence. What is your evidence for that, since we want to discover the truth about that idea?

And on and on. This may get tiresome for you the reader, but just imagine how it is for me! I have to keep repeating the same thing over and over again while getting roasted by the JN's sycophants in his comboxes and my own.

Nihilist: Here, you seem to be denying the nature of a First Principle (or axiom). In truth, it was unnecessary for me to show that evidence itself can substantiate evidence’s worth; First Principles, by their nature, are fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality. One generally does not seek to prove one's First Principles and axioms, because they are assumed self-evident and undeniable.

In showing that evidence, indeed, can be used to demonstrate the value of evidence, I simply showed that my First Principle is self-subsisting. That is, it supports itself and does not contradict itself. If evidence were not able to show evidence’s value, then my First Principle would be self-defeating. However, that is anything but the case. I have used evidence to support evidence, and thus crafted a self-subsisting First Principle.

Rhology: The very next sentence is classic:

“My first principle only would be self-defeating if it, itself, could not be substantiated through evidence.”

He then attempts to substantiate his principle by appealing to it. Which is, of course, circular.

Nihilist: Again, a First Principle or axiomatic statement should not need to be proved, because its truth is self-evident and it is essentially undeniable. I define evidence as being “the relevant facts” as they pertain to a larger, more complex truth. It is self-evident that the relevant facts guide us to larger truths. Again, I am not talking solely about scientific evidence here, such as what can be found under a microscope, but rather simply “the relevant facts” of any given matter.

I also find your criticism of evidence to be disingenuous. I have already given an example of why this is the case. Imagine that you are driving on the Interstate on a breezy evening. You notice that, on the car in front of you, the brake lights have illuminated. Upon noticing that fact, you apply the brakes on your own car. By taking that action, you have just utilized evidence. You took the other car’s brake lights as evidence it was slowing down. From there, you reasoned that, to avoid smashing into the slowing car, you also must slow down. That is just one example of a process you go through a thousand times every day. You notice the relevant facts, analyze them (if only for mere seconds) and climb to larger truths on the back of that evidence. In short, you prove my First Principle every day of your life. That is why, when you deny evidence’s utility, you are being, at best, extremely queer and, at worst, shamelessly hypocritical.

Your life—and my own—validates my First Principle.

Rhology: Then, we hear:

“Perhaps your questions are ‘easy’ for the theist because they are designed presupposing the theistic worldview.”

Not really, though one only wishes that the JN would then follow that line of reasoning.
The questions I've asked are not all that "specialised", when you think about it. I'm not asking "How do you think the Eucharist is best celebrated?" or "What do you think about the baptism in the Holy Spirit?" Far from it. Rather, the questions are designed to show that an atheistic worldview can't make sense of such important questions, whereas the biblical worldview can (as the JN has just admitted here).

Nihilist: In our engagement, it has become clear that you subscribe to The Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God (TAG). All your questions tend to presuppose that argument’s soundness. I, however, emphatically have not been convinced of its soundness. In fact, when posed by Christians, the argument is so much question begging. When posed in a more vague way, which does not presuppose the Bible’s factuality, it does not work to prove the Christian deity at all, but rather any “sufficiently similar” god.

I think the Sufficiently Similar Deity refutation needs to be fleshed out, and now seems like a good time to do so. In my previous interactions with you, you have said that Yahweh uniquely satisfies TAG (whilst Brahman, Vishnu and others do not) because Yahweh is (a) infinite, (b) solely god, (c) eternal as god, and (d) unlike humankind. However, as I also have previously mentioned, I could invent a god named Hargazorn and endow it with the same core essentialities. Then, I could add variables to the deity to make it different from Yahweh, yet still sufficiently similar to maintain TAG’s soundness. In that case, I could use TAG to prove infinitely many sufficiently similar deities, all of whom happen to be (a) infinite, (b) solely god, (c) eternal as god, and (d) unlike humankind. Yes, with TAG, I could prove infinitely many “sole gods.” Something, we must conclude, is wrong with the argument.

Rhology: This may be my favorite admission from the JN:

“This question is fallacious because it presupposes that communication, reasoning and logic require ‘grounds’”

For someone who purports to be after the "truth", one really has to wonder what this could mean. So perhaps he means they don't require grounds - they just ARE. And God isn't. Which brings up a whole host of problems, not least of which is how the universe (ie, matter and energy) could arise out of non-personal abstract concepts. They are immaterial - where is material from?

But of course, if he can presuppose that logic just IS, then I can presuppose that God just IS. We are at an impasse now until each of us takes on the other's worldview to see which one comports to reality.

Nihilist: I reject the basis of your implicit comparison. To say a notion, such as logic, just “is” is different from saying a complex creature just “is.” There is no reason to think a supernatural consciousness is required for logic, mathematics, reasoning, communication or any other such thing. There is nothing statistically improbable about logic, math or reason—except creatures (humans) able to comprehend those things. We, as a species, are improbable. Our big brains are improbable. Our ability to engage in abstract thought is improbable. [Darwin’s elegant theory of evolution “climbs Mount Improbable” beautifully and effortlessly.] Given all those natural endowments, humankind discovering logic, rationality, reason, communication and the rest should not be seen as improbable.

By contrast, your god conception is vastly improbable. You are proposing a creature who can (a) create a universe, (b) fine-tune that universe’s constants, (c) send somebody to earth to die for humanity’s sins, (d) monitor everybody on the planet constantly, (e) hear prayers, (f) answer those prayers, (g) perform miracles, (h) offer comfort, (i) keep Heaven up and running, and (j) build things like logic and communication. Such a creature is millions of times more complex than, for example, a human eye. It is millions of times more complex than a pocket watch. Such brain-melting complexity—the very height of improbability—demands an explanation. You have no explanation at all for god’s existence, except to say god has always existed. To my intellect, that sounds a lot like saying, “The human eye always existed,” only millions of times worse in its evasion. The creationist dogma of “complexity requires a designer” is self-annihilating. In the case of greatest complexity (of all places!), religionists drop their intelligent design requirements.

Rhology: So, let’s do so. We will see that the JN or any atheist, by engaging the topic, has conceded the issue. The reason for that is that their presuppositions do not allow for the coming-forth of beliefs that are reliably believed to be true. This is the point of Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) (see Plantinga’s statement here), and I’d state it two ways.

1) The way Darwin himself stated it:

“With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind? (Darwin 1887)”

Related specifically to evolution.

Nihilist: I think, in posing this argument, you are mistaken in your understanding of Darwin’s theory of evolution. True, Darwin’s theory recognizes that all life forms on this planet have a common ancestor. This is called Universal Common Descent. However, on the vast Tree of Life, there is amazing diversity; having a common ancestor does not mean everything is the same. Saying a human brain is interchangeable with a monkey brain is like saying a tiger is interchangeable with a housecat. It simply is not the case. Through millions of years of evolution, our species has been endowed with a large, complex, wondrous brain. We far outshine even our closest relatives, the common chimpanzee. We are not “glorified monkeys” and birds are not “glorified dinosaurs”; the differences are substantive. I am the first to admit that humans are just another species of animal, roaming about the planet and trying to survive. However, it is irrational to deny our materially different physical endowments, leading to materially different abilities.

Rhology: Or,

2) Why would I believe that my own or anyone’s cognitive faculties are reliably geared to producing true beliefs when they are nothing more than neurochemical reactions? They are atoms banging around. As I’ve said, I don’t argue with my bottle of lotion, nor do I ask a fizzing can of Dr. Pepper who has the upper hand in the debate between the JN and me. Doing such would make as much sense, after all, as asking who is winning the debate on the other side of the room between the fizzing can of Coke and the fizzing can of Mountain Dew. The liver secretes bile; the brain secretes thoughts. How can we have confidence in these thoughts, these secretions of the brain?

Nihilist: I never declared my utter and ultimate confidence in anything. Humans, being fallible primates, make mistakes. However, upon examination of evidence, we tend to get things right eventually. Every conclusion we make is tentative, based upon what information we have and our cognitive limitations. But, the fact that we can be utterly certain of nothing does not mean we are unable to know anything. Again, the human brain, for all its limits, is a wondrous contraption.

I think, though, your main failing in this case is your refusal to recognize emergentism. That is, the pieces of the puzzle coming together—working together—to create something greater than the sum of the parts. Human thought depends upon emergentism, as does much of what makes humanity beautiful.

I shall quote my friend Francois Tremblay, with whom I have had some stinging debates about whether morality is objective or subjective:

“The reasoning of the theologian … is that matter does not contain properties such as logic, consciousness, morality, and that therefore no material system can contain those properties. But we cannot infer properties of the parts to the whole, insofar as the human mind is not a set of banging atoms but rather atoms which are assembled from birth to serve specific cognitive purposes. This is called emergentism – the fact that units, having a specific nature, assemble accordingly with that nature (a phenomenon we call ‘causality’) and form higher systems with new potentialities.”

“Emergentism is a fact of reality whether one likes it or not. Atoms form neurons, and neurons form nervous systems. Cells form brains, which form awareness. How this arises, is the role of science to find, not philosophy.”

To reduce everything to the level of atoms, and then to say everything composed of atoms is equal, is to deny emergentism, deny biology, deny observation and deny reality. To equate a human with a can of soda (which is not alive, much less in possession of a brain) is to betray a total misunderstanding of science, as well as atheism.

Rhology: This is what results when I take on the atheist’s worldview. Can we presuppose reason and not God? Sure, let’s see what happens when we do. We have several problems now:

The question of the origin of the universe. Since there is no personal First Cause, there is no answer to how matter and energy came into existence.

Nihilist: I readily admit that I cannot present a thoroughgoing explanation of our universe’s origin. Perhaps we live in a grand cosmic multiverse, of which our universe is merely a daughter. Perhaps aliens from another realm planted a cosmic seed, from which our universe grew. Perhaps an Ethereal Cosmic Catfish spit up a ball of slime, from which our universe sprang. Perhaps our universe’s mass-energy has always existed, infinitely changing forms. The fact that the origin of the universe remains unknown does not mean one should appeal to a god character. Indeed, appeals to a deity only exacerbate the problem. From whence did the deity come? If statistically improbable complexity demands an explanation, then god, the most statistically improbable being conceivable (based upon brain-melting complexity), demands an explanation of his own origins. And, if you believe god has always existed, why not cut out the middleman and just say our universe’s mass-energy has always existed?

Rhology: The question of why we should trust reason in the 1st place, as stated in the above 2 arguments.

Nihilist: Your arguments were based upon misconceptions (of science and evolution) and denials (of emergentism and species’ unique natures). I have addressed these sufficiently.

Rhology: Just b/c we presuppose reason does not mean that we presuppose logic.

Nihilist: Reason, logic, rationality, communication, utilization of evidence, mathematics, etc. are not improbable notions. Humans are improbable. Our brains are improbable. Our capacity for abstract thought is improbable. But, given our physical endowments, our ability to discover reason, logic, rationality, communication, utilization of evidence, mathematics, etc. is not improbable. They come with the territory of being biologically “blessed,” if I may steal a term.

Rhology: If we presuppose logic and reason, that means we have presupposed the existence of immaterial entities. If immaterial entities exist, materialism is defeated. I’m not sure whether the JN is a materialist, but if he presupposes logic and reason as brute facts, he can’t be a consistent materialist.

Nihilist: I believe that logic and reason, along with mathematics, could best be described as “abstractions of the material.” I do not necessarily think that logic and math were floating around in the universe, waiting for a human to evolve to use them. Rather, I think, once humans evolved, we developed certain tools to make sense of our surroundings. Logic, reason and math enable us to survive on this planet, and make our lives better and more productive. In any event, the existence of logic and reason as concepts is not equivalent to the existence of immaterial consciousness in the form of a deity. If you are attempting that equivalency, I call bullshit.

Rhology: So I’m not feeling too comfortable now as far as this goes. OTOH, the God of the Bible fulfills the role as grounder of intelligibility b/c these things flow out of His character, how and who He is. He is logical. He is reasonable. Our thinking processes and trust that our cognitive faculties can be relied upon to produce true beliefs in many instances reflect the fact that His cognitive faculties, if you will, are that way. How do we know this? Remember, now we are presupposing the Christian worldview and testing how far it comports with reality. A criticism of the Christian worldview, therefore, would need to presuppose it and then try to show how it is internally inconsistent on its own grounds, not on the grounds of some other worldview like naturalism.

Nihilist: I have sufficiently shown how your “trying on” of atheism is based upon misconceptions and denials (as well as an implicit presumption of TAG’s soundness). You deny emergentism, misunderstand evolution, irrationally equate everything composed of atoms, demand “grounds” you cannot prove necessary and presuppose one deity whilst shunning a sufficiently similar one. Even assuming TAG’s soundness, you have failed to show why Yahweh must be the grounds rather than Hargazorn, a competing deity I have defined as (a) infinite, (b) solely god, (c) eternal as god, and (d) unlike humankind. Your argument has no uniqueness proof, which hobbles it fatally.

Here is another problem with using a deity as the grounds of logic, morality, communication and everything else. If all those things are dependent upon the deity, as you claim them to be, they are contingent on the deity. That is, god could arbitrarily change them at any time, for any reason. As things currently stand, the fossil record serves as evidence for Darwinian evolution. But, perhaps, should god feel the need, he might make evolution evidence for the fossil record. If evidence is contingent on god, he could do that. If morality is contingent on god, he could make arson morally virtuous and feeding the poor morally reprehensible. If logic is contingent on god, he could make “X” equal to “not-X,” or make “Q” unequal to “Q.” When everything is contingent on a deity, he can change everything at any time, making the entire world senseless, arbitrary and incomprehensible.

Let me anticipate your response: “God is possessed of a particular nature and, because of that nature, God would not alter the rules.”

The problem is that you, like many Christians, define god as being infinite. If god is infinite then, presumably, god also is possessed of an infinite nature. It would be downright asymmetrical for an unlimited creature to be possessed of a limited nature. By contrast, human comprehension is limited. Bearing in mind that 840 billion is 0% of infinity, even if humans knew 840 billion elements of god’s nature, humans would still have 0% knowledge of his nature. I think, with 0% knowledge of a subject, one should be cautious in drawing any grand conclusions about what god would or would not do. Indeed, even declaring god infinite is overly speculative, in my judgment.

You say that god condescended to reveal himself to humanity. I draw an analogy of humans revealing ourselves to gnats. Gnats simply do not have the capacity to comprehend humans—even if we, as humans, deliberately reveal ourselves to them. Even this example, though, is woefully insufficient; humans are not infinitely greater than gnats but merely much greater. There is no analogy in the natural world of an infinite thing revealing itself to a finite thing. But, if there were, it would be even more devastating than my human-gnat attempt.

Rhology: Finally, when I say that the JN borrows capital from the Xtian worldview to attack the Xtian worldview, I mean this. He presupposes the worldview that includes the 4 major problems I listed above, which cast serious, serious doubt on the reliability of his or anyone’s cognitive faculties to produce true beliefs. He needs to deal with those problems and then we can talk.

Nihilist: Dealt with.

Rhology: Otherwise, his worldview precludes him from having any confidence in intelligibility or rational thought, which means that he has to implicitly stand on the platform of a worldview where intelligibility and rational thought ARE supportable. That worldview is the Xtian one.

So he stands on Xtianity in order to use its framework for rationality and intelligibility (b/c those things reflect how God is and how He has revealed Himself to be) and then employs intelligible, rational arguments to assert that this God does not in fact exist. He stands on my stage and denies my stage exists.

Nihilist: Again, why does the Hargazornian worldview fail this test? Remember, I have defined Hargazorn thusly: (a) infinite, (b) solely god, (c) eternal as god, and (d) unlike humankind. If you insist upon your fallacious reasoning, you, at the very least, must confront the Sufficiently Similar Deity challenge. If you believe only Yahweh can be the grounds, you must demonstrate how each and every part of Yahweh’s nature is materially crucial to TAG.

By the way, you have not done the hard explanatory work I requested:

1. Explain why, in a godless universe, smoke pouring out an apartment window would not be evidence of fire.

2. Explain why, in a godless universe, a primate grasping his throat whilst turning blue would not be evidence of choking.

3. Explain why, in a godless universe, a primate could not figure out X cannot simultaneously be not-X.

4. Explain why, in a godless universe, a community of primates could not invent a language of guttural yelps to pass along messages.

Rhology: I have recently taken up a contributing role to the Beggars All Reformation blog, and so my time at that blog is going to cut into my time here and in this discussion with the JN. Please note therefore that my substantive responses, if any are necessary, on this subject may be slower in coming than before. Patience is appreciated, and I commend the JN, John Morales, Tommy, and the other commenters (Lucian excepted) for not busting my chops for running away just b/c I haven’t said anythg in a while.

Nihilist: I do not intend to bust anybody’s chops in this discussion. I eschew insults, ad hominem attacks, schoolyard taunts and other such nonsense in the name of intellectual seriousness. I take my arguments seriously, and I believe I can win on their merits, without recourse to juvenility. I have enjoyed our interaction over the weeks, and I have neither ill will nor animosity toward you.

However, all good things must end. This discussion cannot go on in perpetuity. Therefore, I propose an end game. I assume you shall be desirous of responding to this essay; I welcome your response. However, assuming you accept this plan, I shall not rebut you point by point as I did this time. Instead, I shall offer a closing summation. Then, I shall grant you the last word, letting you make a closing summation. Then that will be that, with no further arguments from me. If you are satisfied with this proposal, please let me know in the opening of your response.




Blogger John Morales said...

Ah, a fine example of quote-mining.

Rhology quotes something Darwin wrote, saying "Related specifically to evolution".

It is unfortunate for him that, when the quote is placed in context, Darwin was actually expressing doubt about his conviction that the Universe is not the result of chance (in his self-deprecating way).

Mark VandeWettering has addressed this, and writes:
"The quote by Darwin above is seldom provided with a proper citation, it appears in one of his letters to William Graham, author of the book The Creed of Science, which Darwin was apparently reading."

And the quote in context (bold is the mined section):
You would not probably expect any one fully to agree with you on so many abstruse subjects; and there are some points in your book which I cannot digest. The chief one is that the existence of so-called natural laws implies purpose. I cannot see this. Not to mention that many expect that the several great laws will some day be found to follow inevitably from some one single law, yet taking the laws as we now know them, and look at the moon, where the law of gravitation-and no doubt of the conservation of energy-of the atomic theory, etc. etc., hold good, and I cannot see that there is then necessarily any purpose. Would there be purpose if the lowest organisms alone, destitute of consciousness existed in the moon? But I have had no practice in abstract reasoning, and I may be all astray. Nevertheless you have expressed my inward conviction, though far more vividly and clearly than I could have done, that the Universe is not the result of chance.* But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?

10:22 AM EDT  
Blogger Rhology said...


That might work out... such imposing posts as those which we lob at each other are time-consuming, and I'm getting busier.
Tell you what - I'm actually pretty content with the way my arguments have stood up against your most recent post and so for the most part am OK with leaving most of this post unresponded-to directly, in a post that I have yet to write; I believe my responses can be known from before.

So, I'll pick a few things here and there, summarise my response (hopefully briefly) and then maybe you could offer one more thing (or not) and we can be done. You're right - all good things must come to an end (except God ;-) ).

PS - credit for busting of chops is given to the inhabitants of the comboxes, not you.


Thanks for the larger context. I don't see how it changes the implications that Darwin saw. 'Preciate it, though.

9:21 AM EDT  
Blogger John Morales said...

No worries, Rhology.

I suspected as much.

For you, it's related specifically to evolution. For others, it's about doubting your inner convictions, otherwise known as keeping an open mind.

But then, Darwin was a great man.

6:24 PM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...


That seems fair enough to me.

If I feel as though my arguments have withstood your counter-assault, or, at the very least, my counterarguments would be painfully obvious to any fair-minded reader, I shall forgo a formal response and let this post be my final word in the debate.

If, however, I feel as though your response demands a rebuttal, I reserve the right to make one more post, to which you might or might not respond [I shall not respond to a hypothetical second response from you.]

I think everybody knows that both of us are fully capable of responding to any composition made by the other. We have an irreconcilable difference of views, and we both boast the intellectual endowments to defend our views in perpetuity.


2:22 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting debate, it is unfortunate the theist had to depart. However my comment would be that to say humanity is improbable but a human's rationalization, logic, etc is probable due to the improbable human's capabilties is the same as saying an improbable omnipotent God has probable abilities of hearing all prayers, sending his son, creating all life, because it is a direct result of the improbables being abilities, therefore if logic is probable for an improbable human, then hearing all prayers at once is probable for an improbable omnipotent God. However I do not agree with the theist's axiomatic approach because statements like that can be said for anything.

12:54 AM EST  

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