Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


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God is a necessary precondition for reason: preliminary remarks

This post contains an introduction to my debate with Steve Zarbi on the moot: the Christian God is a necessary precondition for human reason.

In California last month, Gene Cook and Steve Scianni debated the question, Is the Atheistic Worldview Superior to Christianity? The debate is available in mp3 format, accessible via the follow-up post on ‘The Narrow Mind Aftermath’ blog.

In the comments of that post, a great deal of interaction took place between atheists and Christians, with a lengthy dialog being established between my friend Jim Cateno and a poster named “JC”. This dialog focused largely on the difficulty the atheist has accounting for logic in a physicalist worldview—that is: how does a non-rational universe give rise to rational thinkers? Jim had asked for my own thoughts on this dialog, and so I joined the discussion and spent some time expanding certain aspects of the arguments he had made. The core of my presentation focused on the conceptual dissonance between the materialist worldview, and what we know about thinking. This is a somewhat different approach than I would normally take, since it is not a presuppositional argument in the typical sense of the term—it focuses on a particular aspect of metaphysics (philosophy of mind) rather than on epistemology. It therefore supposes certain knowledge on the part of the non-Christian, in order to demonstrate how this knowledge is incongruent with his worldview; whereas the presuppositional method I generally advocate would focus on denying this knowledge altogether. That is not to say that we are conceding any knowledge to the atheist in this alternate approach; rather, we assume it only for the sake of argument. This is simply the direction the conversation took; while I did briefly present epistemological reasons to deny the materialist worldview at a more fundamental level, these reasons were not engaged in the discussion, since the central topic was already centered around logic and human reasoning.

JC eventually requested that we continue the discussion via email, since it seemed to him to have outgrown the comments area of the post to which it was attached. Since I see little value in a discussion confined to two people, because it is generally the audience who most benefits and there is no audience, I requested that, if he would like to continue, then we should do so in a more formal and open capacity. Therefore, we agreed that we would publicly debate the matter, and decided upon the following moot:

This can, in my view, be reduced to the more succinct title which I have given to this entry; but the above proposition is the full moot under debate. We will present an opening statement (maximum 1500 words), then a first and second rebuttal (maximum 3000 words each), and then a closing statement (maximum 1500 words). Before I began my opening statement, however, I wished to here make some preliminary remarks which seem important to the general debate, but which do not contribute to my actual defense.

I will be presenting a version of what is known as the argument from reason, popularized in print by C S Lewis in his book Miracles, and more recently online by Victor Reppert, who authored C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason. Victor runs two philosophical blogs, ‘Dangerous Idea’ and ‘Dangerous Idea 2’, which I commend to anyone interested in the issues surrounding the philosophy of mind. It ought to be evident to anyone familiar with my own work that this is not an argument I have presented before; and neither is it one which I would favor in most apologetic encounters, since I believe the properly presuppositional method is more basic and more powerful. However, it is my view that the argument (or, really, arguments) from reason can be used, following a presuppositional presentation, as a further vector for investigating the Christian’s claim that the biblical worldview properly explains reality while the atheist’s does not. This is achieved by focusing on various aspects of human reasoning, showing them to be impossible within a physicalist worldview.

The closest I have come to a presentation of an argument from reason would be in my brief comments regarding the immaterial and material in The Wisdom Of God. Specifically, in the appendix on science I challenge the empiricist to prove that there is anything except the immaterial mind—to show me, if logic is indeed a part of the physical universe, the logic carrier particle, the “logitron”. Since many thinking Christians are in a position where they must defend their faith to entrenched atheists who really do believe only in the physical universe, it seems to me a valuable exercise to expand on the problems inherent to such a view when we come to explain human reason itself. This is not to say that the epistemological problems which I present in The Wisdom Of God are not both logically prior and sufficient—rather, that another vector for demonstrating the absurdity of atheism may be useful.

In regard to this, it should then be evident that an argument from reason is ancillary to a presuppositional apologetic. It augments it, but it does not aim to replace it. It seems to me that only the presuppositional apologetic can both destroy an unbelieving worldview and also prove Christianity. Most proponents of the argument from reason would seem to agree—certainly it is Victor’s view that arguments from reason are not intended to establish the necessary truth of Christianity itself, but rather show merely that supernaturalism is a better alternative for interpreting reality than naturalism is.

I mention this because I have, despite these limitations, agreed to defend the moot that not merely is a god necessary to human reason; but the God. Please bear in mind the limitations of the argument from reason as I defend this moot. In order to properly win the debate, I must not merely show—as I will—that naturalism is unable to account for human reason. That much is relatively trivial. But I have taken a full burden of proof in this debate, and confined that proof to deductions from human reason itself. I must not merely disprove my opponent’s worldview, but prove the biblical one. I must not merely show that a worldview which denies the supernatural is untenable, nor even that the worldview which affirms the specific supernatural claims made by the Bible is tenable; rather, I must show that this worldview is necessary.

I am not convinced that this is possible. However, I have agreed to defend the moot in question for several reasons. Firstly, I enjoy a challenge. Having to defend a moot which seems, to me, inherently indefensible will force me to seek new ways to employ or expand the arguments from reason. This, secondly, will hopefully offer other Christian apologists new perspectives or insights into these arguments. And thirdly, I believe it is important to explore and demonstrate the limitations of various arguments used in defense of Christianity, so as to emphasize their correct place.

Update: February 19, 2008

As detailed in my general invitation to debate, JC has dropped out by default after becoming unreachable. Steve Zara has therefore kindly agreed to take his place in defending the negative position.

Continued in my opening statement »

4 comments

  1. Streetapologist

    I am very interested in this debate for two reasons. First I am reformed and particulary enjoy presuppositional apologetics. Secondly, I personally know “JC” and have had a number of conversations with him.

    Let me say, at least in person JC is polite and respectful and makes some good points, however I can’t see him winning. No offense JC.

  2. Seer

    It seems to me, as Plantinga and others have pointed out, reason or truth would not be things that the evolutionary process would necessitate. It would only necessitate that which works. So if irrational thought/belief works, that would be selected for.

    A man may run from the tiger because he has an irrational fear of the color orange or an irrational fear of fur in general. The man survives but not according to truth or reason.

    Of course the atheists must agree. The vast majority of humankind have believed in a god or gods – that there was something “out there” that man was accountable to. Now this “irrational belief” (irrational according to atheists) must have conferred some advantage to our species.

    So this deep and wide spread belief conferred advantage and was irrational. If this is true, then most of our beliefs and conclusions must be brought into question. Truth and reason are simply not necessary to the evolutionary process or to gain advantage.

  3. Blue Devil Knight

    I see little value in a discussion confined to two people

    This is insane.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Seer—

    I agree that Plantinga’s critique is an insurmountable problem for the naturalist. However, it isn’t the direction I will be taking. It already concedes too much by granting, implicitly, that rationality exists in a naturalistic worldview. Not only is there no guarantee of rationality, but the very concept is incoherent.

    Naturalism fails at every level; I have just chosen a different level than Plantinga by focusing on whether the concept of truth, rather than the possibility of it, is congruent with the naturalistic worldview. My critique will probably be similar to the comments I made regarding value in the original discussion. Ask a naturalist to define value, and you will basically get a definition along the lines of “something beneficial”. Which is of course begging the question, regardless of how they then define what is “beneficial”; because beneficial implies value. If you didn’t already know what value was, the definition would be meaningless.

    Blue Devil Knight—

    Why do you think my view is insane regarding who benefits in a discussion? Consider the context of my comment. I am not referring to one-on-one conversations in real life, but to argumentation online. From experience, the two parties actually engaged are entrenched in their positions; it is those in the “audience” (a term which is not time- or location-limited online) who are undecided and trying to weigh each position who learn and gain the most. Why would I continue a conversation indefinitely with a single person who will not—but for the grace of God—change his mind, when I can conduct that same discussion in a public and structured manner, and thus reach potentially anyone online who is already being drawn by grace to ask the sorts of questions which I will seek to answer?

    Regards,
    Bnonn

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