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existential crisis

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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)


series
God is a necessary precondition for reason: my opening statement

This is my first statement in my debate with Steve Zara on the moot: the Christian God is a necessary precondition for human reason.

Continued from my preliminary remarks «

I am charged with defending the moot that the Christian God is a necessary precondition for human reason. JC, my opponent, takes a physicalist approach; meaning that he believes everything about reality can be ultimately reduced to the physical universe; that the supernatural does not exist, and does not need to exist. While his particular view is, I think, trivial to refute, I am faced with a particularly challenging task in going further and proving that the specific supernaturalism taught by the Bible is the only kind which makes human reason possible.

Definitions

Lest we find ourselves arguing at cross purposes because of some ambiguity, it seems to me that the meaning of the entire moot ought to be briefly considered—

The Christian God

I affirm, of course, the God of the Bible; but to exhaustively prove all of his attributes as necessary to human reason would require an argument from biblical rationalism. Since I have agreed to present an argument from reason instead, I must settle upon some attributes which are both useful to that argument, and unique to God himself. I am going to select aseity and trinity.

Aseity is the condition of being underived, noncontingent, and necessarily existent. This is in contrast to the material universe, which is derived from, contingent upon, and coincidentally existent because of God. Trinity is the state of being one single, united, indivisible substance comprised of three distinct persons.

Given the attributes chosen, and the limitation I face in having to prove the Christian God as necessary without an epistemological appeal to his Scripture, I would like to preclude speculative deities. It seems unreasonable to place such a burden of proof upon me that I must not only show that the physicalist worldview lacks the preconditions for reason, and show that an aseitic and trinitarian God is necessary; but also show that no counterfactual deity fulfilling these criteria is adequate. If I can show that an aseitic and trinitarian deity must exist, then, given the existence of such a deity in Christianity and his absence from any other religion, I consider that sufficient to persuade the unprejudiced intellect.

A Necessary Precondition

A necessary precondition is simply something which must be the case in order for something else to be the case. In this example, I contend that if the Christian God did not exist, then human reason could not exist. In one sense, the word necessary is superfluous; however, I wished to include it so that the moot was as clear as possible. Note that I am arguing that the Christian God is a necessary precondition. I have not chosen to defend the moot that he is the necessary precondition. This is simply because there may be other preconditions which are also necessary, but are not God. For example, JC may argue that the human brain is a necessary precondition for human reasoning. Since it may be beyond the scope of my own presentation to say whether or not this is so, and whether or not God is the necessary precondition for human brains also, it seemed best to simply leave the moot open to these possibilities.

Human Reason

I take human reason, broadly, to mean any process of the mind; for example, the process that you are going through at the moment in seeing these words, apprehending their individual meanings, relating them into propositions, and reflecting upon those propositions. I include qualia (subjective, first person experiences of objective, third-person phenomena) within the scope of human reason, since they are often integral to it despite not being rational per se. However, I will be focusing on what we might call the “core” of human reason: logical inference itself. I include the ancillary items of qualia and apprehension and the like because they seem, in a functional sense, to be inseparable from this core rational process.

The Argument

I contend that God is the precondition for reason. Although it is trivial to argue that physicalism makes human reason impossible, I have spent a lot of time pondering precisely how to develop this argument from a negative one into a positive one in defense of Christian theism specifically. I have come to the conclusion that the best way to attempt this is to focus on the heart of the topic: logical inference.

We would all agree that, if all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal. We believe that we apprehend this conclusion in view of the two premises, and the relationship we perceive between them. Now, it is evident that this relationship is not a physical one; and the premises are not physical things; and the properties they have of being about something (which is called intentionality) and of being true or false are not physical properties. In every way, this is a non-physical situation. A physical person named Socrates may be at the center of it, but the actual argument is clearly not a physical thing. Neither is the mind in which the argument is apprehended; but rather it is a real, but immaterial, non-physical entity. We might say that it is made of mental substance, as opposed to the brain which is made of physical substance. If you’re unconvinced about this, consider that a mental state can be about something, or that it can be true—and now try to say the same thing of physical brain states. We know that it doesn’t make sense to say that one state of the brain is about another, any more than that an electron is about a photon. Truth and intentionality are not physical properties. They are mental ones.

We know, because we are immediately aware of it through introspection, that we believe Socrates is mortal because of the premises: that all men are mortal, and that he is a man. When we say because of, we are acknowledging a causal relationship between the premises and the conclusion. The relationship is real; believing the premises really does cause the belief in the conclusion. We therefore conclude that our mental state in which we apprehend that Socrates is a man, and our mental state in which we apprehend that all men are mortal, are both causally linked in some way to our mental state in which we apprehend that Socrates is therefore mortal. There is a real, non-physical relationship between these premises and the conclusion.

None of this denies that our mental states may correlate to physical states in our brains. But we cannot reduce the mental states to these physical states, because we would then remove truth and intentionality completely, since they are non-physical things. Similarly, we cannot say that the mental states are caused by physical states, because then the only real causation would be physical causation while the mental states are just along for the ride, having no actual influence on what happens. But we have just established that mental states do really have causal influence on other mental states. If they don’t, then logical inference does not actually take place, and the relationship between premises and conclusions does not really exist.

But we agree that this relationship does exist. What is interesting about it, however, is that, although it entails a mind (because it is a mental relationship), it does not entail our minds. We could none of us exist, and yet we must acknowledge that this mental relationship would still hold. We perceive that it is a necessary one, and that it could not be otherwise; that it applies to everyone, and it is not a matter of convention, but of necessity. It is what we might call a mental law—or, really, mental laws, since there are several discrete relationships which we apprehend. We give them names, like noncontradiction and identity.

But mental laws do imply a mind. By definition, the mental entails a mind; and so universal, necessary mental laws therefore must imply a universal, necessary mental mind. We could otherwise phrase this by saying that such laws must imply an aseitic God. A necessarily existent, noncontingent, underived, and immaterial Mind exists. To the best of my knowledge, this formulation of God applies to only a very few deities. In fact, it seems only to describe YHVH—whether that be the Jewish, Muslim, or Christian understanding of him. However, I am not an expert on comparative religion, and so JC is welcome to dispute this point.

Now Judaism and Islam believe, and strongly affirm, that God ultimately is one. That is to say, he is a unity, and is also unary. They deny that he is several persons in one substance. While this does permit them to claim a unifying principle between propositions, since God, being one, is ultimately unity, it denies them the ability to have propositions themselves in any meaningful way. This is because propositions tend to describe things which are different—and if God, ultimately, is one, then how could plurality come about? This problem is only satisfactorily resolved by the Christian God; who, being three in one, represents an equal ultimacy of unity and plurality. Therefore, of the three religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), only Christianity remains viable, because God has revealed perspicuously in the New Testament that he is a trinity.

This, basically, is the position I will defend as we proceed: that there must be a real mental substance and real mental laws in order for argumentation to be possible (including argumentation against a real mental substance); that these mental laws entail an aseitic Mind; and that this aseitic mind must be a unity and a plurality, which implies the Christian God.

Continued in Steve’s opening statement »

10 comments

  1. Nigel

    Impressive opening. This one could be over before it gets out of the gate. Is there a time-limit for the response?

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hi Nigel; thank you.

    JC and I have agreed that a week is a reasonable time limit for responses; however, we are both quite busy, and I don’t think we’re holding to that extremely strictly.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  3. Streetapologist

    Well I am wondering what happened to JC. I wrote him an email today that he didn’t respond to and I see that he has yet to respond to your opening statement.

    Could he have repented of atheism and now embraces the Triune God of the Bible? I remain hopeful.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I emailed JC recently as well to ask when I can expect his opening statement, but I haven’t heard back either. Hopefully he’s all right.

  5. Streetapologist

    Dominic:

    I noticed you wrote a book on apologetics. I read some of the introductory remarks and noted that you have read Vincent Cheung’s books.

    I was introducted to Presuppositional apologetics while a student at an evidentialist school and was converted on the spot. Cheung’s book “Apologetics in Conversation” had a big influence on me. I admire Cheung for publishing his books for free on the web. I know that some of our reformed brothers disagree with Scripturalism but honestly wonder if they aren’t just misunderstanding Clark, Cheung et.al.

    I would appreciate knowing your opinion.

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hi streetapologist—

    In my experience, there is a tendency among Reformed Christians nowadays to try to protect God from himself. No one wants to say that God in some way causes sin, because that would make him “responsible” for sin—and the term “responsible” has become ambiguous in its meaning, so that many people think that to be metaphysically responsible means to be ethically responsible. So even Calvinists are denying God’s sovereignty in causing sin, and in this sense they adopt Arminianism, despite at the same time affirming God’s total sovereignty and man’s lack of free will.

    At first glance this may seem unrelated to scripturalism, but I don’t think it is. Scripturalism requires an extremely stringent metaphysic which makes no compromises with God’s sovereignty, because it recognizes the importance of a closed and accounted-for string of causation in the universe. Biblical occasionalism is the metaphysic upon which scripturalism rests, and much of scripturalism’s apologetic methods rest on the epistemological ramifications of this—as you will see if you read my book. Furthermore, even if we ignore the metaphysical issues, the fact that Clark and Cheung and the like affirm God’s total sovereignty, saying that he causes sin, makes most Christians automatically label them as heretics or fools or extremists, who are to be ignored by all sensible and moderate Christians—and so what they have to say about apologetics is overlooked.

    Now, it is my view, after several discussions with other Christians who are not familiar with biblical occasionalism, that the word cause is behind most of the problems people have with scripturalism. Cheung and myself are very firm on establishing the biblical metaphysic as one in which, ultimately, all causes are caused by God. This is misunderstood frequently, often, and all the time, to mean that God causes sin in the same sense that we cause sin. Ie, that God causes sin in a secondary metaphysical context. Of course, the whole point of the scriptural metaphysic is that God causes sin in the primary context; what one might call remote cause or ultimate cause. But the implications which come out of the word cause are just too strong, and once you have used it, it may take pages and pages of discussion and examples and analogies before you can properly correct all the misconceptions which result, and the understandable righteous indignation from those who think you are calling God a sinner; and not just a, but the sinner, ultimately responsible for all sin. This is simply because people are only familiar with cause in the secondary sense. To try to explain primary cause while using that very word is extremely difficult—even more difficult than explaining presuppositional thinking to someone who doesn’t know what presuppositions are, and isn’t aware he has any.

    So I have started to use the term “bring about”. This seems less offensive, while still meaning precisely the same thing. I think it is more palatable because it seems to fit into the biblical model better; it’s the sort of language the Bible itself uses. Furthermore, it has the advantage of implying the kind of causation which is meant: ultimate, remote, primary causation, as opposed to the sort of causation with which we are familiar in an everyday sense.

    The problem with the term “bring about” is that it suggests at least the possibility of a certain passivity. Ie, God may bring about the circumstances which result in sin, but he doesn’t bring about the sinful action itself. That is our doing. Of course, it is our doing, but we are not active in comparison to God. We are passive. So it is our doing in the immediate sense, but God’s doing in the remote sense. Explaining all this can be difficult, however—which is why I am devoting my next book to the task; and also to proving the logical necessity of this metaphysic in some detail.

    In short: yes, I believe most Reformed people misunderstand Cheung and Clark. But I also think that this is partly because Cheung and Clark have not made a good effort to correct this misunderstanding. A lot of people do not grasp the subtleties of scripturalism easily, and we should try to help them with that, rather than simply dismissing them.

    Hope this helps.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  7. Streetapologist

    Dominic:

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I just began reading Clark’s book: God and Evil the problem solved.

    I have read some of Malebranche and know that Jonathan Edwards embraced occasionalism. It makes sense to me, although I have found precisely what you have related; the whole concept seems to make many Christians uncomfortable. I think Edwards addressed this when he dealt with proximate and vulgar causes. (Perhaps the terminology is incorrect)

    Anyway I am looking forward to reading your book.

    PS: I am going to attempt to reach out to JC again, he lives near me and we have met personally many times. I am very perplexed as to his lack of response.

    Blessings in Christ,

    SA

  8. Brian

    Hi. Your argument is still born. There can be no mind separate from physical processes. How can an immaterial thing interact with a material thing and not violate the 1st law of thermodynamics? It can’t. End of argument.

  9. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hi Brian. Since we’ve moved on from the opening statement now, and it seems unlikely that your particular argument will be raised in the debate itself, it seemed appropriate to respond briefly—

    You are begging the question by making the presupposition of physical causal closure, and by precluding the possibility of a God who upholds both the physical and the mental realms, and the correlation between them. You should be careful of accusing my argument of being “still born” when your own so plainly relies on its own conclusion. Worse, it fails to actually interact with my own argument at all, and so my reasoning stands. This being the case, you have really done nothing more than make a “science of the gaps” appeal. Do you know that the first law of thermodynamics cannot be broken? Has science discovered everything which can be discovered?

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  10. Jack H. Lannom

    Hi Dominic,

    I was a student of the late John Robbins for ten years and I have been searching for more clarity on the teaching of Clark on these issues. I love what you have written!
    I truly thank God for what you are doing. Please let me know how I can purchase your books. It would be a great blessing to learn from you. Moreover, I would love to talk to you sometime. I am currently pastoring at Free Grace Bible Chapel. http://www.freegracebiblechapel.com

    Your new student,

    Jack H. Lannom

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