Sunday, July 8, 2012

Debating the Atheist -- Round Two

Second Round

Pastor Stephen Feinstein

Hello all,

Russell Glasser wrote a response to my opening statement, and it is found on his blog. The link is:

Please read his response before reading my response to him. As many of you have noticed, I disabled your ability to comment. I want this to be a one-on-one debate rather than a free-for-all where everyone jumps in. When Russell and I agree that the debate is done, the comments will be enabled thus allowing people to comment on it. I may even continue posts for Christians as a post-debate discussion. With that said, I can begin.

Russell, first I would like to add more clarity to what I said about that particular Atheist Experience episode where you and Matt debated Ray Comfort. The video is still on YouTube at, and the dialogue that we both are referencing begins at 57:02 and ends at 57:18. For the most part, your transcript is right, but some sort of comment is necessary. The context was Matt claiming it was dishonest for Ray to judge four other religions by Biblical presuppositions, and Ray said that everyone does this. Matt then said that we all actually don’t do this. Russell, after listening to this five times, it seems clear to me that when Ray said, “Well we all do that,” he was saying that we all judge other positions from our personal presuppositions. I personally do not see how Matt interpreted that as Ray saying that atheists interpret things from Ray’s Biblical presuppositions. Thus, to the casual viewer (myself), it seemed clear that Ray tried to say that everyone judges opposing views with their own presuppositions, but Matt Dillahunty said, “Well, no we actually all don’t.”

Why am I bringing this up? Really, just for my own defense. I do not want to seem as though I purposely tried to take what Matt said out of context. I have spoken with a number of atheists that do not believe they have presuppositions, but instead they charge the very idea of this as being circular reasoning. So when I heard Matt say what he did, it sounded like he was saying the same type of thing. I appreciate your clarity on this, and I am glad that you asked Matt what he really meant. I am not going to accuse him of dishonesty, but instead I will gladly admit that I misunderstood him, with the caveat that I think the statement would have naturally been understood by the casual viewer in the way that I understood it.

With that said, since you admit that your starting point is “subject to unprovable assumptions,” you have saved me a lot of time. As I have said, I have had to deal with the nonsensical idea from some atheists that they arrived at their position because they were an unbiased neutral person with no assumptions, and the evidence alone led them to their atheistic conclusion. You are philosophically past that, which is great to hear. And I do apologize for my misunderstanding of Matt and my assumption that he was trying to support that very thing.

Now that this is out of the way, let me answer a very important set of questions that you posed. You asked:

Having agreed to the idea that everybody is subject to some unprovable assumptions, I think we can probably agree that if you and I hope to have a meaningful exchange with each other, arguing over which set of assumptions to accept will be a relatively useless exercise.  The first thing you said was “atheism is untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible.”  I assume that you’re going to try to demonstrate this to the satisfaction of me and the readers of our two blogs, which means that you’re going to do more than simply say “Let’s start by assuming that the Bible is true.”  Right?

First, I totally disagree with you over the claim that, “arguing over which set of assumptions to accept will be a relatively useless exercise.” The assumptions that you accept will cause you to interpret evidence in a particular way. For example, if you assume uniformitarianism (a geological theory advanced in the 18th century still held by many geologists today), then you will interpret all decay-based dating methods to be accurate and you will assume that we live on a very old earth. If I reject uniformitarianism in favor catastrophism, then I will assume that since rates and conditions change due to massive changes on the earth, that your dating methods are irrelevant and interpretively flawed. So the question at hand is whether or not we are at an impasse. Do we simply agree to disagree, or do we actually start evaluating our assumptions? Do you simply commit the logical fallacy of ad populum and say, “Because a majority of scientists hold position A, therefore it must be true,” or do you instead say, “Truth and fact cannot be reduced to majority opinion, and therefore we need to judge the merit of each assumption?” I hold to the latter, and I hope that you do as well.

The bottom line is we must have a battle of epistemology here. We both are claiming that certain things happened, and we both need to be able to justify what we claim. Yet, if our presuppositions are epistemologically weak, or even worse they are impossible, then we cannot justify what we claim. So it is not useless to talk about these assumptions, for it is here that I am going to effectively refute your positions.

Second, you asked if I am going to do more than say, “Let’s start by assuming the Bible is true.” The answer is certainly yes. I plan on saying, “Let’s start by assuming the Bible is true,” and I also plan on saying, “Let’s start by assuming atheism is true.” From there we are going to talk about the necessary preconditions of intelligibility to see which set of assumptions is even possible in the first place. Russell, you and I are having an intelligible debate right now. We are using words that make sense to each other and we have large audiences following along who also are making sense out of this. Through our senses we learn intelligible things everyday, as we also do through the laws of logic. We both seem to assume that humans are to be treated with dignity, and therefore we both speak against dishonesty and so on. This is just a tiny portion of intelligibility, and I refuse to let us take any of these things for granted.

It is not good enough for me to say, “Russell, I agree with you that this world is real, that we learn from the senses, that reasonable standards are necessary, and that bald assertion fails to prove anything.” By the way, I agree with you on all of these things, but with one revision. However, I want us to account for these things. What are the necessary preconditions of this universe, as we know it? Why are we able to rely on our senses? What are the necessary preconditions for our senses to be reliable? Why must there be reasonable standards? What are the necessary preconditions for any standards at all that avoids the hopelessness of relativity? Epistemology will help us construct workable lists of what things are necessary in order to make these assumptions of ours a reality. Furthermore, we cannot even take epistemology for granted, but must ask what are the necessary preconditions of it too? And at the end of the day, atheism cannot provide for these necessary preconditions. It is too early in the debate for me to give specifics, as I plan to wait for your next response.

Concerning my revision of our agreed assumptions, I would add that apart from our senses, we learn maybe as much from logic or deduction as we do from sense experience. Deduction is when a person takes a group of information and then applies certain laws of thought and relationships (between classes and categories) to that information, and then draws a conclusion. Rather than baldy asserting this, I will illustrate it with an example. I “know” (reasonably speaking) that I will not in the course of my life meet a human being that is 50 feet tall. How do I know that? Well, if I depended on sense experience alone, then I would have to physically observe with my senses all 7 billion people on earth. This is an impossible standard of knowledge, and the Achilles Heel of bald empiricism. Instead, I can reasonably know, through logic, that no one is 50 feet tall. Perhaps a basic syllogism will help with this:

All humans are less than 50 feet tall.
Some random guy I might one day meet in Israel is a human.
Therefore, that random guy will be less than 50 feet tall.

This example drew connections between the class of humanity and the class of height, and then the single member class (random guy in Israel). In other words, all P is Q; D is P; therefore D is Q. The reason this is important is because without the laws of logic, we would not be able to truly advance knowledge since all we would have to rely upon are one-time experiences all isolated from each other. We would know only momentary experience since we would not be able to relate classes or propositions to each other. The beauty then of the laws of logic is they allow us to learn about things that we have not directly experienced with our senses, and they allow us make reasonable connections between the things we have experienced with our senses, thus allowing for reasonable knowledge. Thus, deduction is just as important as induction, and we will need to discuss the necessary preconditions of both. But as I said earlier, that will be saved for a future response.

Moving on, when you commented on the Biblical definition of God, you then asked me how I plan on justifying any of it since you personally agree with none of it. This too will come as we advance further in the debate, but for now I am going to advance a preliminary argument that will sound absurd to you. Here it goes. The Biblical God must exist, because if He does not exist, then we can know nothing at all. Or let me put it this way. Christianity must be true because without it we lose all intelligibility.

Why did I frame it this way knowing that you will shake your head at it? Well, it is rather simple. It is the thesis of my argument for the existence of the Biblical God. After we go back and forth a number of times, it will have plenty of meat and bones and it will stand over anything you might be able to say. Of course, I don’t want you to start worrying that I am going to turn this into fideism, meaning faith against reason. No my friend. I will give you a lot of evidence. I will use much reasoning and logic. I will fall back to epistemology frequently. And at the end of it, your position will no longer justifiably be called as rational. To see it as rational would be to do so in spite of reality. I understand that this is bold for me to speak like this, but I am so convinced of the transcendental necessity of the Biblical God and all of the reasoning and evidence to go along with it, that I have this confidence. I am so convinced of the truthfulness, perspicuity, and infallibility of the Bible and the worldview it presents that I confront your position with such boldness. Please take no offense over this, for I mean not to offend. I am sure you have confidence and boldness in your position as well.

Continuing with what you wrote, you posited that my argument that atheism is a distinct philosophy is incorrect. I disagree with you on this. All things considered, atheism is a metaphysical position about reality. Regardless of what any given atheist holds (e.g. materialism, non-divine spirits, Theravada Buddhism), the position that no God exists is a distinct view of reality. Fine, not all atheists are the same. Likewise, not all theists are the same. Yet, theism and atheism at the bare bone minimum are views of reality. That is the first marker of a philosophy. Second, all atheists have a distinct view of knowledge (e.g. human autonomy; Theravada yoga; etc.). They believe that we learn truth about reality through certain means. You admitted that your view is that we learn primarily through sense experience. Finally, atheists believe in a theory of ethics. Even the psychopath has the ethical position that no authoritative ethical position exists that he/she is bound by. By definition, that is still a position. The atheist college professor that says there is no objective moral truth is still quick to fail the student that blatantly cheats on the final exam or plagiarizes the research paper, even if that student claimed it was the morally responsible thing to do in his/her personal system of ethics. So atheists can claim to hold no meta-ethical position, but this simply is not true. Every fiber of how they live their life denies such a statement from their mouth. You and Matt were apparently indignant when you felt Ray was being dishonest, meaning in your ethical view dishonesty is not good.

I suppose your disagreement/confusion was caused by the fact that I used examples (this is why they were in parentheses) that are consistent with the typical run of the mill Western atheist. I acknowledge that not all atheists fall into that framework. However, of the most notable atheists that have written in the last 300 years, most do fall into the definition and examples that I gave. It is not surprising to me that you personally hold to materialism, empiricism, etc., because just about every atheist I have ever run into thinks the same way. So yes, I understand that we are talking about your opinions, but I still assert that we are talking about the most prevalent stream of atheistic thought in the Western world, and thus this debate is against far more than just your personal view. Instead it is the typical atheism that we Christians run into on a daily basis, and my position is not just my own, but instead it represents the Biblically minded Christians that atheists run into everyday. And I do understand that you have run into a lot of misinformed souls who tried to defend the Christian position and were pathetic at it, and likewise I have run into atheists that did not know the most rudimentary basics of logic and science. I am assuming here in this debate that I am debating a well-read articulate atheist that can represent the typical worldview that I encounter in atheists, and I believe that you are debating an articulate Christian that can represent Biblical Christianity.   

I will finish up with a simple response to your following statement:

For me as an atheist humanist scientific skeptic, here’s one of my primary principles: All else being equal, it’s better not to assume that something is true without good reasons.  That means I don’t currently believe in space aliens that visit the earth and probe farmers, I don’t believe in millions of dollars waiting for me to unlock them from offshore bank accounts, and I don’t believe in an absolute being who is split in three parts and rules the universe while being separate from it.
I could make the same statement. It is better for me not to assume that the universe somehow made itself through random processes, that time (a category of motion) started its own motion from non-motion, that personal beings randomly came into existence from impersonal matter and chance, and so on since there is no good reason whatsoever to believe it. I’ve seen persons come from persons, and I’ve seen orderly systems of technology come from designers. I have seen a farmer produce a field of agriculture, but I have never seen a field produce a farmer. I have seen mechanics produce tractors, but I have never seen a tractor produce a mechanic. So with that being said, I have by your own words that I should not “assume that something is true without good reasons.” A personal God, distinct from creation, that is sovereign, and that is Triune makes so much better sense. I think atheism is far more akin to the millions of dollars in offshore bank accounts from Nigerian princes, rather than Christianity. As the argument progresses and we get into the preconditions of intelligibility, I believe this will become far more apparent.
Russell, I will give you good reasons to believe in the God of the Bible and I hope to demonstrate to you that you are the one who believes in atheism for no reason, whereas I have plenty of reason to believe in my God. I think by this point I’ve shown you which direction I am going to take this. I am interested to see where you are planning to take it. I think the phase of using feelers is coming to an end.
I appreciate the time you are putting into this. This next week will be busier for me and so my responses may be a litter slower. I ask for grace on this. Thanks.
With much respect, I await your reply.

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