The Great Explanation – Atheist Style (Part 2 . 1)

This post is written on the assumption that my previous ones have been read, especially Part 1 of this particular article.  As this second part is too long for a single post I shall have to “do a Karl Barth” and make this Part 2.1 and follow it up with 2.2 (for everyone’s sake I shall try to keep it at that 🙂 ).

Introduction:

In this reply to Dormant Dragon’s (DD’s) attack on Presuppositional Apologetics (PA) and more importantly, Biblical Christianity, I shall be again examining her claims about how she knows what she knows, and interacting with more of her posts.  It will be quickly seen that she contradicts herself severely and that her attempts to stabilize a sinking ship are unsuccessful.   I shall be providing some further material on “preconditions” and why only the Triune God of the Bible supplies them.  Prior to that I want to look at the character of the laws of nature and ask what makes them law-like?  Then I shall ask about what we all experience and how this fits with atheistic evolutionary explanations.  It will be shown that the atheist worldview reduces to nonsense everywhere it pronounces upon experience.

I know very well that the atheist will always have something more to say.  They are motivated and compelled by an almost “evangelical” zeal to argue incessantly against a God they say doesn’t exist.  They do this by simply avoiding tough questions and redefining terms so that they can continue arguing.  DD to her credit has tried to supply answers here and there, but has failed to see where her answers would take her were she to pursue them to their logical outcome.  I shall demonstrate this, but it should not be missed that the real issue here is not evidential but rather ethical (Rom. 1:18-32).

Naturally, the question of how DD can even trust her own reasoning is taken for granted by her without explanation from her outlook.  Contrariwise, in order to show the adequacy of the BW I shall show how presupposing it does account for the reality we know and experience from the biblical outlook.

We shall also see (in 2.2) how DD makes an attempt at a precondition for knowing with Descartes, but soon abandons him and simply asserts a naive empiricist dictum that she must be able to trust her senses.  It is not that I disagree with DD that our impressions of the world are generally reliable – I would expect this within the Biblical Worldview (BW)  – but I do not see how DD can assume it must be so from where she says she’s coming from (and she does assume it).  David Hume (whose ethical animus against Christianity protruded through his life and writings), shall be brought in to show her that this belief of hers constitutes no safe haven at all.  She is all along assuming things which her stated belief-system contradicts – thereby showing itself unworthy of her allegiance.

Throughout this post it ought to become clear that the atheist interpretation of the world destroys all meaningful discourse about the world.  At least it would were its adherents to follow through on it.  This just isn’t possible, so the atheist actually presupposes the biblical worldview (BW) while continuing to argue for their inept one.

I intend this to be my last post in this debate since I must move onto other matters.  There is a lot to wade through and I shall concentrate here on part two of her “pantheistic response” to PA, her “Reality Denial” post, plus some things from her answers to things she was challenged on.  I have tried to prioritize rather than tackle every assertion DD has made.  This is possible because if her epistemological foundations are shown to be built on shifting sand it follows that her other assertions are even less securely anchored.  The jibes against “an ancient book” etc., will be bypassed, not because evidences to the contrary are not easily provided, just that that particular line of argument always involves a lot of educating of the people who make them.  I don’t have time to do it and the effort would be wasted in any case because that isn’t the real trouble anyway.  As I say, the real trouble is ethical not intellectual in nature.  To put it in Van Til’s words, “Their epistemology is informed by their ethical hostility towards God.”  The intellect is employed in service of the sinner’s hatred of God.  For this same reason I shall not interact with the confused and theologically naive philosophizing of Godlessons, although I may write something on it in the future.

All atheists draw assumptions which do not cohere with their interpretations of the world. It is essential to understand that we are starting where they (in this case DD) say they start and seeing where it leads (not where they would like it to lead). All we are doing is showing that to adopt a non-Christian worldview is to opt out of ultimate explanations at the beginning and only join the argument once presuppositions, which can only be grounded within the framework of the BW, have been set out.

My thanks to Dormant Dragon for a stimulating discussion.  Once again, nothing said here is meant as a personal attack on her or any other atheist.

1. The Laws of Nature

Dormant Dragon has repeatedly espoused her faith in all things naturalistic and evolutionary, including things like the laws of thought (epistemology), the laws of morality (ethics), and the laws of nature (metaphysics).  Let us start by looking at the latter (all emphases are mine):

In fact, it is my belief that energy is the fundamental ‘stuff’ of the universe – matter is energy in a different form.

It would be a tautology to say all the material universe is composed of matter and energy, but DD, in true atheist form, claims that is all there is.  This makes her a materialist monist.  In the BW there are immaterial realities like logic, morality, class concepts, beauty, spirits and, back of all, God.  DD does not believe in the last two and gets logic, morality, concepts, beauty, plus other things like number and specified information, from inanimate matter.  For her, lifeless matter is amazingly creative and productive:

If, as I suppose as a naturalist, we are products of natural processes, it seems extremely odd that these would ultimately produce beings fundamentally unlike and incompatible with the world of which we are a part.

This paragraph is reversible, making it another empty tautology.  All it is saying is that the world is a fit habitat for its beings and we are fit beings for the world we inhabit.  The only thing of consequence in the statement is that natural processes alone made it so.  These processes were not teleological.  They were blind and were not and are not goal-oriented.  That they ended up making endless purposive and teleological things is a miracle to outdo the resurrection of Jesus (which btw was both predicted by Jesus and predicated on the necessary existence of a God who can easily perform such miracles by a special providence).  For DD everything must be  explainable via the innate properties of undirected matter and energy.  This includes, of course, the laws of matter and energy.

The naturalistic worldview invokes cosmic and macro evolution.  This is a train which once one has stepped onto cannot be disembarked.  It must be ridden to its terminus.  Matter and motion (or energy) is constantly evolving into new things, and so are we.

What, then, is a law of nature?  Any science textbook will say about the same thing, though in differing ways.  A natural or scientific law is a statement about observational structures and phenomena concerning the regular interplay between matter and energy which is universally valid.  These laws are not technically provable, but have been observed to be true in every instance to which they apply.  Thus, Ohms law states that ‘voltage equals current times resistance.’  Farady’s law states that ‘the quantity of matter separated out during electrolysis, is proportional to the electrical current and its duration.’  The law of conservation of energy (1st law of thermodynamics) stipulates that ‘energy cannot be created or destroyed’  in the observable world.  If people did not presuppose the regularities of the laws of nature they would never build an airplane, let alone board one.  They would never produce a cooking recipe, never mind follow it!

These laws are law-like because they always turn out to hold in every experiment that involves them.  Further, they always disallow outcomes which go contrary to them.  Thus, they are seen as pertaining everywhere at any time.  They are immutable.  And even though it may be theoretically possible to falsify a law of nature, no counter examples have ever been observed.

Now what does this do to the atheist conception of an evolving universe?   Atheists claim that these laws of nature are inherent in the raw material of the universe.  They allow and even produce the processes which gave rise to our reality.  Thus, DD expects inanimate undirected forces to deliver up reality, together with our experiences of it.  But these undirected forces, while obeying the laws of nature, could very well have delivered up a very different universe.  As Stephen Jay Gould famously quipped, if we could rewind the tape of evolution and then press the “play” button, we would get a different result.  This means that our world is very far from being inevitable (what might have been expected) on the atheist view.

It follows that all assertions about the inevitability of our world are contrary to this arbitrary scenario.  Perhaps then DD’s lack of surprise at the way the world is has more to do with a psychological need rather than a rational or scientific one?  This is an observation we shall have to keep returning to. In her worldview any talk about ultimate significance or purpose is ruled out automatically.  Things could easily have been very different.    This becomes important when one gets around to speaking of truth or right and wrong, or good and evil.

Moreover, on this outlook the laws of nature are simply “there” without any explanation of why they are there. Now, if we couple together the “thereness” of these natural laws with the undirected and arbitrary direction of these laws, we are left with a meaningless existence which is “just there!”  Hardly a cheerful point of view (unless, of course, it grants ones wish of forgetting about God).   So, when the atheist says they find their naturalistic atheism personally and intellectually satisfying they are at best only supplying us with a bit of autobiography.  What they are not doing is saying anything meaningful about the world beyond themselves.  This does not make metaphysical naturalism necessarily untrue, it just makes it metaphysically impoverished.

2. “Experience Rules!”

It goes without saying that no one has seen or heard of natural laws creating anything, let alone living systems.  All the fancy experiments and computer programs that have been so carefully devised to “prove” there was no intelligence or goal in the processes which produced life have been conceived by intelligences who always had strict goals in mind when they devised and created their “proofs.”  It’s interesting to see DD stake so much on experiences which neither she nor anyone else have actually ever experienced (even if we were to allow for the moment that she can trust her perceptions if her naturalism is right – see 2.2).   

“they [people] base their knowledge and understanding upon experience, and they interpret their experiences such that they arrive at what might be termed functional knowledge – knowledge that enables them to move and act within the world. These philosophies also seem to me to be comfortably compatible with naturalistic pantheism.”

Alright, so the statement itself does not qualify as “knowledge” by its own definition.  Still, “experience” supposedly lies behind all possibility of knowledge, but that knowledge is, note, only pragmatic in nature (“functional knowledge…that enables them to move and act”).  What it doesn’t do is tell us where or how to move and act.  (One senses the nagging presence of the moral ought in the air!).  For example, why ought a person or community not achieve functional knowledge by intimidation, lies and propaganda?

What must be resolved from this is the question of why I should bother about anything or anyone else unless my “bothering” has some present functional value for me?  Notice that this “knowledge” is not necessarily true or false, it is simply “functional.”  This all equates nicely with the “survival of the fittest,” but then so did Eugenics and Hitler’s Final Solution.

Leaving that aside for the moment, what about laws of thought? 

‘Immaterial’ realities exist upon a base of material entities. Logic is an abstraction of concepts derived from experience of material reality, such as identity and noncontradiction – that is, something is generally not observed to be itself and not itself at the same time.”

Notice again that our perception of material reality is taken for granted.  DD assumes she has reliable access to the world outside via her experiences.  The laws of thought (logic) are predicated on the reliability of her sense impressions or perceptions of the world.  We shall see that this is a massive leap of faith for someone who says they believe what DD believes.

What is more, the laws of logic must be emergent since they derive from “our” aggregate experience; – presumably from the time our sub-human ancestors began reflecting on more than food and flee bites?  This is the evolutionary view of logic.  Logic comes from thought; thought comes from minds, and minds evolved from lifeless matter and energy.  The upshot is that logic was once not what it is today (since our brains were not as developed as they are now).  What once appeared quite reasonable and non-contradictory may now appear the epitome of irrationality.  And as our brains evolve no doubt so will the laws of thought.  Unless, of course, the laws of logic are resistant to the “natural processes” which produced them in the first place?  But this would mean their existence does not depend on these evolutionary processes.  Evolution would have been transcended somehow!  But recall that the atheist worldview demands that logic is tied to ongoing physical processes, making such transcendence impossible!  Logic and evolution are tethered together in atheism.  Atheism bundles the laws of logic onto the moving train of evolutionary processes whether they raise a protest against it.

The dilemma here is that the atheist worldview has real difficulty with establishing static unchanging laws of logic.  And if perchance they wish to just take them for granted, they must be asked to explain how these laws of thought remain static through evolutionary time.  Why don’t the laws of logic keep evolving, and if they do how can we call them “laws”?  But I believe I am repeating myself.

Notice again the utilitarian thinking behind her truth-claims as she discusses concepts and numbers:

“Class concepts would not exist without material entities to group into classes. It’s an efficient means of understanding the world, and the survival benefits to ancestral groups of hominids ought to be obvious. Numbers are an abstraction from material reality.” [This is called “nominalism” which we shall encounter in 2.2]

My first reaction upon reading this was to wonder if DD had ever read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ or seen a Sci-Fi movie.  Has she never enjoyed the concepts created by the mind of Dante or Shakespeare?  And how does she conceive the history of inventions and discovery?   Michael Polanyi pointed out years ago that many of the greatest scientific discoveries came from hunches and people imagining yet-to-be known new things.  Polanyi was reporting on human experience to correct the sentimental misconceptions about the white coated scientist discovering something wonderful by experimenting in his laboratory.  The Oxford philosopher Keith Ward points out that “Isaac Newton was inspired to search for general laws of motion and mechanics precisely by the thought that the universe was designed by God, in which case its laws would be both intelligible and elegant.”  Newton didn’t don the white coat until he had some good reason for doing so – which he got from the Bible.

Anyhow, Dormant Dragon lays down here the rule that material “realities” are the precondition for class concepts (e.g. car, duck, table, humanity, redness).  That is certainly not true.  I can forge the concept of purple aliens in my mind quite easily without any reference to whether they actually exist as “material realities.”      Notice again how she takes material realities for granted.  And once again their value is not in their truth but in their practical outworking (“survival benefits”).

Recall what I said about our sub-human ancestors above: how logic was wrought in their developing brains!  Well, here we see that what goes for the laws of logic not surprisingly applies to morality as well:

Morality is explicable as a result of our evolution as social mammals. Its existence is dependent upon our relationships to our fellows, and the decisions we make in interacting with the world. What has been called ‘proto-morality’ has also been observed in other social mammals, such as wolves and dolphins, and even some bird species.

I don’t wish to put words in her mouth, but the way this normally goes, and what she seems to be saying is this: We evolved as “social mammals” and so had to learn to get along.  So we developed conventions of behavior which were chosen because they made the biggest contribution to the survival of the community.

That is the standard take on morals by the atheist.  There can be no universal moral “oughts”!  This leads to some important questions:

1. If morality evolved then what was once moral may now be immoral and vice versa.  So if I were a 10th Century B.C. Canaanite it might have been perfectly moral for me to roast one of my children on a fire-pan to Molech?

2. An evolving morality cannot be normative, especially outside of the particular group which adopts (for the moment) that morality.  Perhaps the Death-camps of Nazi Germany, which according to Richard Wiekart’s research most Germans knew about, were perfectly ethical for them?  After all, what person believing in such a statement as DD’s above could quibble over the moral conventions of another people-group?

3. The upshot of this is that DD cannot, if she wishes to stick with this idea of morality, tell others that what they are doing is immoral – at least if she does she should add “in my personal opinion.”  This is to say, the ethical system of the atheist worldview is purely descriptive and non-committal, it can never be prescriptive and normative.

But here comes Dormant Dragon:

I am suitably horrified by the fact that live vivisections of dogs and other small mammals were carried out in Descartes’ time.

Perhaps those in Descartes’ time made “decisions when interacting with the world” that DD is horrified by.  Is there a problem with that?  With no Moral Law-Giver to supply normative moral authority for people’s choices their own moral choices are just as “right” and “valid” as hers.  Is she telling us more than she finds such acts psychologically disturbing?  I do!  But then my worldview has man entrusted with the oversight of the beasts of the earth as one of his duties.  My Bible includes commands not to cruelly muzzle an ox when it is treading out the corn.  It tells us that “the righteous man regards the life of his beast” (Prov. 12:10), so we’ve got it covered.  Only if she abandons her atheism will her views on live vivisection be of any moral import.

You opined in a previous post that there is an ethical dimension to my rejection of a biblical worldview. Well, of course there is! What thinking person would think it’s ‘good’ to live in subservience to a vainglorious monster like Yahweh? What sense is there in worshipping such a being? Furthermore, how is it ethically sound to subscribe to the doctrine of vicarious atonement that is central to Christianity?

Nearly all atheists have similar opinions as this one.  Yahweh is “a vainglorious monster” doubtless because they say He is!  That is the moral conclusion they have come to as their brand of ethics has evolved, and they want us to know it.  Why?  Because they think their opinions are normative that’s why.  But how?  Indeed!….pass the salt.

No, wait.  Let’s look at this argument again:

You opined in a previous post that there is an ethical dimension to my rejection of a biblical worldview. Well, of course there is! [she is mounting the soap-box with a prescriptive ethic not available at the Atheist’ intellectual store] What thinking person would think it’s ‘good’ to live in subservience to a vainglorious monster like Yahweh? [And what is DD’s standard of goodness given her evolutionary view of morality?  And will it stay “good”?  Of course, the God she is insulting is the precondition for normative ethics and our moral responsibility too.  He is not a monster; He is the One who commands us to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”  And He is the One who will hold us morally accountable for how we have treated others.  Further, how can God be “vainglorious”?  He is glorious!  If He said He wasn’t He would be lying and so would not be the God of Scripture!] What sense is there in worshipping such a being? [If He’s God it would be senseless not to worship Him] Furthermore, how is it ethically sound to subscribe to the doctrine of vicarious atonement that is central to Christianity? [What is DD concerned about ethical soundness for?  That presupposes some absolute ethic to measure soundness against.  She has only pragmatic but nebulous utilitarianism to appeal to.  From her vantage point nothing is “ethically sound” (unless this is another subjective reference].  But, from the BW the “soundness” of Jesus voluntarily dying in my place, taking my just punishment, is not in its fairness!  It is manifestly unfair for Him to be condemned so that I can go free!  But God’s justice is appeased by God’s love, and God’s love is epitomized in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ (John 3:16-17!)]

So what DD gets from “experience” is considerably less impressive than she advertises.  The trouble here is the same as it is everywhere else; DD’s Christ-rejecting worldview makes nonsense of our “experience” of natural laws, laws of logic and laws of morality.  It ought to be obvious that the biblical worldview does give us just such preconditions for these experiences.

3. Out in the Real World

This paragraph furnishes a good introduction to this next segment:

Strange though it may seem to have to explain such a natural and obvious assumption as that of the existence of a real world…

What is obvious is that we live in the real world.  What is not at all obvious is that this world is made and structured according to DD’s interpretation of it.  I have a son whom I love dearly but who I will not let near certain gadgets or items I am constructing, because he thinks he understands what goes where, irrespective of what the manufacturer’s instructions may say about the matter.  His interpretation doesn’t match the specifications.  DD is like that.  Her interpretations of the world don’t fit the specifications; logical, moral, scientific, or anything else.  How then does she operate in this world?  Answer: she uses the borrowed capital from the BW and then pretends it comes from hers.

It seems to be a criticism levelled by presuppositionalists that an atheistic worldview cannot ‘justify’ holding any beliefs, cannot ‘prove’ anything and cannot lead to absolute truth.  I would be inclined to agree, but then I don’t think that these things are required of a worldview. Its job is to make sense of experience.

This is rather handy in the present case.  A worldview which does not in fact explain the world!  I’m at a loss to fathom how a worldview which cannot justify its beliefs, or ‘prove’ anything, and cannot lead to absolute truth, can “make sense of experience.”  In fact, the whole point of presuppositional apologetics is to demonstrate this very point.

But DD provides us with a definition:

A worldview is a conceptual tool that we construct in order to make sense of our experiences. A presupposition, then, in relation to a worldview, is a foundational belief that serves to connect and explain aspects of experience and thus build up one’s particular view of the world.

Here is another definition of a worldview:

“A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of propositions…which we hold…about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.” – James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 4th edition, 17.

The word comes from the German weltanschauung meaning ‘a way of looking at the world.’  Just as long as DD has in mind this sort of thing we are content to go along with her basic definition.  The problem is, her “conceptual tool” isn’t very good.  In one of her comments she wrote, “When you call a spade a spade, rather than indulging in obscurantism, things become a lot clearer…”

The obscurantists are the Christians and the one telling it like it is is Dormant Dragon.  Well, I for one have known plenty of obscurantist Christians.  But their intellectual laziness does not mean the Christian outlook on the world is obscurantist or wrong.  And DD’s attempts to “call a spade a spade” have all so far boiled down to taking reality for granted while speaking subjectively from inside an unusable and dysfunctional worldview.

What I do claim is that my essential presupposition is the same one that Bible believers must have before they can claim that such a thing as a Bible even exists for them to believe in – this is the assumption that I am part of a real world that exists and with which I can interact in real, consequential ways.

There is here a failure to understand what is required of her.  As I have said before more than once, the fact that we operate in the way we do is not up for debate (even Hume had to operate this way).  The heart of the matter is final explanation.  A worldview that assumes premises which it cannot justify (see above) is not a discrete worldview at all, but is a parasitic one.  E.g. When a Hari Krishna moves to prevent someone stealing his wallet he has falsified his worldview, since they claim there are no particulars, all is one.  Likewise when Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett protest against Christian ideas they falsify their worldview, which, if acted upon, would cause them to deny any necessary connection between their brainwaves and external truths.  If, as both men have asserted in various ways, the mind is simply reducible to neural activity, then Christian ideas are just such a result of certain neural activity as they suppose.  In which case, why argue against it?  In fact, why argue for or against anything, since if this view were right no one could help having the ideas their brains have left them with, and no idea – not even the idea that the mind is reducible to firing synapses – would have any greater (or demonstrable) claim to being externally true than any other?

These men, like all atheists of their stamp, are evolutionists.  Atheists think we are cosmic accidents.  But if I am just a cosmic accident, what warrant is there for believing in truthful things about which to debate?  Somebody is self-deceived!

More in 2.2 next time….

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4 comments

  1. But these undirected forces, while obeying the laws of nature, could very well have delivered up a very different universe. As Stephen Jay Gould famously quipped, if we could rewind the tape of evolution and then press the “play” button, we would get a different result. This means that our world is very far from being inevitable (what might have been expected) on the atheist view.

    It follows that all assertions about the inevitability of our world are contrary to this arbitrary scenario. Perhaps then DD’s lack of surprise at the way the world is has more to do with a psychological need rather than a rational or scientific one?

    Subtly snuck in, but this is actually quite a hefty equivocation. Evolution occurs within the context of natural physical laws, but as you rightly said, these laws are not goal-oriented from the beginning – there is no consciousness behind them, so far as we can determine, and thus no intention towards an ultimate outcome.

    In the sense that natural selection operates upon populations of organisms, the trend will be towards organisms that are better adapted, more fine-tuned if you like, to the environments in which they exist. Within this trend, there are extensive possibilities for alternative evolutionary paths – this is what Gould was getting at in observing that if the process was somehow rewound or begun again, there is no guarantee that organisms exactly like what we observe today would necessarily have come about.

    There is some disagreement over this in evolutionary biology circles, but nevertheless, by virtue of the way natural selection operates, the overall trend of evolution would be towards organisms better adapted to their environments – even if the environments and hence the organisms in question differed markedly from what we observe them to be, it would still be possible to observe the overall trend (assuming we, or other comparably intelligent beings, existed).

    Hence, there is actually no contradiction inherent in noting that whilst natural laws hold in all observable instances and evolutionary processes are reliant upon such natural laws, there is room for variation in outcomes given the combination and complexity of circumstances in which such natural laws operate.

  2. The heart of the matter is final explanation. A worldview that assumes premises which it cannot justify (see above) is not a discrete worldview at all, but is a parasitic one.

    The trouble is, you are backforming your “final explanation” after you have already assumed that you have the necessary tools for accessing any such explanation – your sensory perception and your ability to reason about your percepts.

  3. Sorry for the long list of comments – this should be the last.

    This is rather handy in the present case. A worldview which does not in fact explain the world! I’m at a loss to fathom how a worldview which cannot justify its beliefs, or ‘prove’ anything, and cannot lead to absolute truth, can “make sense of experience.” In fact, the whole point of presuppositional apologetics is to demonstrate this very point.

    If beliefs are not justified by making sense of experience, there is no other practical justification for holding them. Insofar as we are limited beings and not omniscient, there is no practical sense in which we can prove something to the level of an absolute truth.

    My interpretation – which may of course be mistaken – is that in speaking in terms of justification, you are intending the kind of transcendent justification which you think is supplied by the BW – which is precisely the kind of justification I do not believe is accessible to temporal beings. It is enough justification for a belief that it comports with reality as we experience it. It is for that very same reason that I rejected Christian beliefs.

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