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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Proof that God is a Delusion

I'm playing off the title of Richard Dawkins' infamous book, The God Delusion. My argument here is quite unlike anything you'll find in that book, however. While Dawkins is content to merely emphasize the implausibility of theism, I aim to demonstrate its inconceivability. What follows may thus be considered a preamble to an argument for theological noncognitivism.

The premises are as follows:

P1: If two entities are theoretically indistinguishable, they are identical.
P2: An infinite entity is not identical to any finite entity or set of entities.
P3: Theism defines "God" as an infinite being.
P4: The physical world contains only finite beings.

It follows from the above premises that,

C1: God is not contained in the physical world.
C2: The experience of God cannot come from the physical world.


C3: The physical world cannot be evidence of God.

Continuing with the premises . . .

P5: Theism defines "divine revelation" either as knowledge of God or as that which produces knowledge of God, or both.

C4: The physical world cannot contain evidence of divine revelation. For, if it could, then it could contain evidence of God.

P6: Theism claims the human mind is capable of experiencing divine revelation.


C5: The human mind cannot be physical, else it could not experience divine revelation.

C6: The mental experience of divine revelation is the only evidence for divine revelation. It cannot be corroborated with physical evidence, nor can it be inferred from other mental processes. For other mental processes do not produce knowledge of God.

P7: A delusion is defined as "a false belief held in spite of strong evidence against it."

C7: If delusions and divine revelation are not theoretically distinguishable, then they are identical.

P8: Delusions only exist in the mind. They cannot be corroborated with physical evidence.

C8: A person cannot distinguish a delusion from divine revelation in their own mind. Nothing in their experience could tell them that one experience was a delusion, and not divine revelation; or that it was divine revelation, and not a delusion.

Consider: If one experienced divine revelation, how could they be sure it was not a delusion? They would require some evidence beyond the experience itself. Since no such evidence is theoretically available, they cannot distinguish it.

And, if one experienced a delusion, how could they be sure it was not divine revelation? Indeed, nothing would count as evidence for them that it was not divine revelation. So, again, they cannot distinguish it.

Both divine revelation and delusions produce strong belief despite the theoretical lack of supporting evidence. The only difference, according to the theist, is that the former is true whilst the latter is false. Yet, there is no theoretical way of telling the difference.

Thus, a person cannot distinguish a delusion from divine revelation in their own mind. It follows that,

C9: Nobody else could distinguish it for them.


C10: There is no theoretical way of distinguishing a delusion from divine revelation.


C11: Divine revelation (and so-called "knowledge of God") is a delusion.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


I'm grateful to a mysterious Steve who, in responding to my last entry, nudged me towards expounding upon a simple idea: that our capacity for speculation far exceeds our ability to make sense; and the corollary, that nonsense is the necessary surplus of scientific discovery. I hadn't spent much time trying to formulate an argument for this idea, but thanks to Steve's questioning, I've begun to forge a philosophical investigation out of it. A key point here is the notion of nonsense, which Steve called me on in his most recent response. He wrote:

I guess it comes down to being clear about the meaning of "nonsense". The Phlogiston theory turned out to be false - but until the experiments were done it was a reasonable speculation - it didn't contradict known experimental results, so I wouldn't classify it as nonsense then. To base a new theory on it now - after phlogiston has been experimentally discredited - that would count as nonsense.

So, I don't think you are being very clear. On the one hand you have "If it's nonsense, it's not science." and on the other "who could produce scientific hypotheses without producing any nonsense?"

Granted. I wasn't explicit about what I meant by the term "nonsense." I'll try to fix that problem now.

For one thing, I'm not so sure it would be nonsense to base a new theory on the discredited notion of phlogiston. It would seem like a huge waste of time and resources, to be sure. But as a theory, it would still make sense. It would make predictions which past experiments have already shown to be false.

So, why claim that it would be nonsense?

When I talk about nonsense, I'm not talking about anything directly related to phlogiston, or other discredited notions. And I'm not only talking about ideas which don't have any clear practical value.

Nonsense isn't so simple.

To understand nonsense, we have to understand sense. I don't think we need an exhaustive detailing of the requirements of sense here. But we need a basic understanding of how sense is achieved, how it functions in various settings.

In science, sense is achieved when theories generate predictive value. The sense of a theory is in the predictions it makes, and its value is judged according to the outcome of those predictions. (Thus, we can say that a new theory based on phlogiston would have no value, but would still make sense.)

In logic, sense is achieved when truth-preserving operators transform premises into conclusions. In mathematics, sense is achieved in a number of ways: for example, when various mathematical procedures are followed and when theorems are derived. In logic and mathematics, we use formal languages that clearly define the boundaries of sense.

With natural language, the limits of sense are not explicitly defined. And yet, nonsense is often clearly recognizable as such. For example, "I alfalfa, under the don't always."

We could develop some code here and say that sentence means, "Hello Control, I received the package." But then we would be assigning that sentence a specific sense by virtue of an artificial code; we would not be finding sense in our natural language. Which is only to say that we have no role for that sentence in our language. It does not tell us anything, or instruct us in any way. It only calls attention to itself as noise.

This is not to say that nonsense is useless. The example of nonsense above served a purpose here: to demonstrate how obvious nonsense can be. So we should not be tempted to say that a sentence without sense is a sentence without purpose or function. Rather, we should say that the sense of a sentence is defined by its use, and that the use of nonsense is to make noise.

So, we may define "nonsense" as follows: any utterance which has no defined role in a language (or, more generally, in a given discursive setting), which does not define a role for itself in a language (or a given discursive setting), and thus which only produces noise.

Looked at in this way, it is perhaps easier to see why I claimed that nonsense is the necessary surplus of scientific discovery. For speculation thrives on our ability to produce utterances which do not have defined roles in our language; yet, only a percentage of those utterances will lead to cogent thought patterns, let alone testable hypotheses which prove their worth with new predictive value.

To take an example, consider the situation in theoretical physics which happened to inspire me to make my initial observation here: that our best scientific theories have been interpreted as suggesting that the universe "began" some billions of years ago out of a singularity. Yet, all of our scientific theories break down when it comes to describing a singularity. So how does it make sense to say that our scientfic theories point to such a singularity? It seems like wild speculation to me, and quite likely nonsense.

I think we can say the same about many interpretations of quantum mechanics.

Science has always been plagued with problems, and its interpretations have always flirted with nonsense to one degree or another. The question is, how could it be otherwise?

It seems to me that, so long as we are going to work towards a better understanding of nature, we are going to speculate, which means we are going to extend beyond the boundaries of sense. Sometimes those ventures will redefine the boundaries of sense, which means they will establish roles for new utterances by virtue of gains in predictive value. But at least some of the time--perhaps most of the time--they will not. Thus we will have produced nonsense. And so it must be, or so I suppose.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Truism, Perhaps

Our capacity for speculation far exceeds our ability to make sense.

As it should be. How could we construct so many useful observations and theories, if we didn't leave tons of nonsense by the wayside?

Nonsense is the necessary surplus of scientific discovery.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What's Wrong With NOMA

I want to explain in a little more detail why I disagree with NOMA, that principle which tries to maintain a safe distance between science and religion in cultural and political affairs. The idea is that religion and science involve "non-overlapping magisteria," each field dealing with matters the other cannot touch.

Those who support NOMA usually say that religion offers moral wisdom and guidance, a framework for understanding our place in the world and a foundation for our way of life. Science, on the other hand, only offers descriptions of nature, tools for making better predictions, models for understanding how natural phenomena unfold. Science is not prescriptive; it cannot ground or justify our social and political institutions. Science cannot tell us what it means to lead a good life. All science can do is let us understand the natural world; religion, on the other hand, deals with questions of value and meaning.

There are two basic lines of argument for this view, and I will explain why they are both flawed. First, however, I will explain in more general terms why I reject NOMA. It is not simply that NOMA lacks sound argumentative support. Rather, it is that NOMA is impracticable as a social or political tool.

The problem with NOMA is that it does not allow us to distinguish the religious from the scientific. NOMA claims there is a line between science and religion, but offers no means of recognizing or measuring that line.

If we could draw the line scientifically, it would mean that science was able to recognize and delineate the properly religious; similarly, if we could draw the line from a religious point of view, it would mean that religious perspectives had some authority over what defines the scientific as such. Since NOMA says that these are non-overlapping magisteria, neither science nor religion can draw the line between science and religion. So how do we decide where science ends and religion begins?

One might say that philosophy is the answer. Yet, if the philosophy of science has taught us anything, it is that there are no a priori boundaries when it comes to scientific discovery. Philosophy cannot tell us beforehand what science can or cannot achieve, or what functions science can or cannot perform. Science, and science alone, defines its boundaries.

So what happens when scientific practice challenges religious doctrine?

Since NOMA offers no means of making the distinction between science and religion, it offers nothing by way of conflict and dispute resolution.

The historical and social fact of the matter is that science and religion can and do compete for the same territory. NOMA says they should stop trying to compete, but offers no method for achieving that end.

Now that I've explained my dissatisfaction with NOMA, let me explain the flaws in its justification.

There are two basic arguments for NOMA. The first is that science, being only descriptive, cannot produce or ground any of our moral sentiments. It does not provide ultimate goals or purposes. Religion, on the other hand, offers people a worldview, a belief system which provides moral foundation. Thus, morality itself requires religion, or something like it.

The second argument is that science deals only with the rational, logical side of experience, while religion deals with the emotional, intuitive aspects of life. Thus, we need religion (or something like it) to lead healthy, balanced lives.

With respect to the first argument, it attributes qualities to religion which are not there and fails to see the proper relationship between science and morality.

Science does help us decide how to live better lives. It informs our decisions about diet, medicine, and general health care. It informs our judgments about whether or not we should, for example, have an abortion or utilize stem cells for research. Only with science can we make informed decisions about how to live.

Science does not tell a woman if she should decide to have an abortion, but it tells her what an abortion is and what its consequences are. And it tells her when the best time to have one would be. She then has to decide if having an abortion is something she wants to do.

While science can help inform our decisions, it cannot provide us ultimate goals or reasons. But, then, neither can religion. Religion only offers the illusion of an ultimate goal and reason, and not a substantive, coherent purpose. Religion offers a framework for avoiding the search for goals and reasons, and not a foundation for understanding or coming to terms with any definable goals or reasons.

One's religion might tell them, for example, that abortion is wrong. The justification? Because God said so, or because it is in God's nature. That is not a reason. It's just an excuse.

Unlike science, religions often make sweeping moral pronouncements. The question is, are they justified in doing so? Should we respect religion as having some authority over such matters?

By what authority?

The problem is, religion offers no reliable foundation for its claims to moral authority. There is no reason to trust a priest over a plumber, a theologian over an accountant, when it comes to questions of moral value and good living.

Many people trust in priests and theologians because doing so makes them feel better. It gives them a reason to stop asking difficult questions. It lets them get away with not having to decide for themselves.

Science offers no such alibi. As far as science is concerned, we can ask all the difficult questions we like, for as long as we want. You can ask your plumber, and your mailman, and your nurse. In the end, the decision is yours.

Our search for moral answers--our search for justifications--is not to be dismissed with sweeping judgments, like "abortion is wrong." Rather, it is to be cultivated and improved over time.

The only reason to stop asking for moral justifications is when it is no longer practical to do so. That is not something that can be decided ahead of time, and it is not something that religions have any authority to command.

Unlike religion, science helps us guide our moral questioning towards more practical and controllable ends. Science is not merely descriptive. Rather, science gives us new languages for framing our prescriptions. The prescriptive language doctors use when advising on diet and lifestyle decisions are made possible because of science. All rational prescriptive language has some basis in science, or else it wouldn't be rational. We cannot separate prescriptive language from science, because if it weren't for the desire and need to produce such prescriptions, we wouldn't worry about science in the first place. Science exists because we need to shape our lives, because we can and must develop attitudes towards our futures.

A science which did not inform our decisions about the future would be a dead science. So it is misleading to say that science is not prescriptive, that it has nothing to say about morality or questions of value and good living. Science is inseparable from our moralizing, forward-thinking behavior and language. Science cultivates and directs our prescriptive language; religion suppresses its development and progress, seeking to terminate the search for justifications with sweeping pronouncements that lack rational support.

Thus I reject the first argument.

This leaves the second argument, regarding the difference between logos and mythos--the rational and irrational, the logical and emotional aspects of human experience. The idea here, promoted by such intellectuals as Karen Armstrong, is that, while science nurtures our rational, logical selves, we need religion (or something like it) to nurture our emotional, intuitive lives.

There may be some truth to this view. I admit that a fulfilling life with only science--where art forms such as literature, music, and film were wholly absent--is hard to imagine. However, we should not interpret this as a valid argument for NOMA.

Religions offer mythology which can provide us with psychologically stimulating and perhaps even enlightening material. Religions can, in this sense, inform our lives and shape our understanding of the world and ourselves. At the very least, religion can feel good.

However, this does not mean that religion relates to a unique "magisteria" which is outside of science's purview. On the contrary, we have every reason to believe that what makes religions work--and what makes art work--is open to scientific discovery. Science can help us better understand religion and art, just as it can help us understand our emotions and moralizing instincts.

The idea that our intuitive, emotional selves is beyond the scope of scientific discovery is unfounded and antagonistic to reason. As I noted earlier, only science can determine its boundaries.

Thus, while we can see a difference between science and religion as human endeavors, we should not conclude that science and religion possess non-overlapping magisteria, or that science has no authority when it comes to religious matters.

Thus I reject the second argument for NOMA.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Wise on Intelligent Design in the Classroom

The state of biology education in America is alarming. According to a well-known study of dozens of countries around the world, America is second only to Turkey in having the highest percentage of citizens who do not accept the scientific fact of evolution. According to a recent Penn State study, evolutionary theory is dangerously neglected in the biology classroom. Many teachers avoid the subject altogether, and only a small percentage emphasize its importance to the field of biology. Meanwhile, a number of them already discuss creationism in the classroom.

A broader cultural dilemma is involved: how to resolve the tension between science and religion in America. This is a serious issue, and I do not think America's scientists are responding to it properly. The most outspoken supporters of evolutionary theory believe their biggest enemies are those who try to wedge discussions of Intelligent Design into the science classroom. This is a mistake.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asks, "a universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?"

This question calls to task received wisdom about the relationship between science and religion, as well as the separation of church and state. (The teaching of Intelligent Design in the public school system has been ruled unconstitutional because of its relation to creationism.) If what have traditionally been held to be exclusively religious conceptions turn out to be relevant to an understanding of science, we cannot properly teach science without challenging tradition. This means the separation of church and state should not extend to a banning of all discussions of religious ideas in the public science classroom.

The historical and philosophical importance of evolutionary theory cannot be separated from its relationship to religious teachings. To fully understand and appreciate the value of evolutionary theory, students must learn how effectively and bluntly it disarms appeals to intelligent creation in the effort to understand life and humanity.

Introducing a critical discussion of Intelligent Design in the science classroom will not threaten the sanctity of a science education; on the contrary, it will open up students' minds to the full weight of evolutionary theory, and so properly counter the ignorance plaguing American society. The war against ignorance in America is not going to be won by banning discussions of Intelligent Design from the public classroom, even if such discussions are deemed "religious." The war is going to be won after a sound debunking of Intelligent Design becomes a required, integral part of science education in America.

The main enemy here may be NOMA ("Non-Overlapping Magisteria," a phrase coined by the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould). NOMA is a political principle which says that science and religion must be kept at arms length at all times. Their respective domains, their "magisteria," do not overlap. Science develops experimental models of nature; religion deals with questions of ultimate value and meaning in life. The two are not related, and so must keep out of each other's business.

When it comes to science education, a hands-off agreement with religion is a recipe for disaster. Students who have been raised with creationist beliefs are not taught to think criticially about them in a way which explores the nature of scientific inquiry and the value of evolutionary theory. They are therefore that much less receptive to a lecture on evolution; especially when they believe that the whole truth, God's truth, is being banned from discussion. NOMA thus allows students' misconceptions about evolution to go unchallenged, providing a sanctuary for their mistrust of science in general and evolutionary theory in particular.

NOMA has its critics, such as Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, who argue that it wrongly imbues religion with an untouchable status, as though religious values and practices were beyond reach of scientific scrutiny. NOMA also has a rather serious built-in flaw: when scientific practice challenges religious codes, it offers no means of resolving the disputes. (See, for example, the cultural debates over abortion and stem cell research).

Regardless of its problems, many science educators embrace NOMA as a way of avoiding discussions of religion. NOMA absolves them of responsibility, allowing them to act as though Intelligent Design, as threatening as it is to America's understanding of science, is not relevant to their work.

Some science educators recognize the inadequacy of NOMA, but resist introducing discussions of ID in the classroom for other reasons. They say a discussion of the relevant issues would only confuse students. Teenagers are apparently too immature to understand the difference between a valid scientific theory and religiously motivated, anti-scientific prejudice. If that is true, then we should have very little hope for the future of American science education.

Some argue that America´s teachers are not qualified to address the issues raised by Intelligent Design. Either the subject is too complex and advanced, or it is too time-consuming to deal with in the public classroom.

I find this hard to believe. For one thing, there is no need to get into the most complex or advanced discussions of evolutionary theory here. What is needed is a broad yet concise analysis of the main issues, with direction for further study. If the teachers are not qualified to give that to their students, then they are not qualified to teach biology.

The issue of qualifications is raised by the authors of the Penn State study I referenced earlier. They conclude that educators are more likely to teach evolutionary theory if they have taken a course in evolutionary biology. However, this could merely be a correlation. Perhaps those who embrace evolutionary theory are more likely to enroll in a course in evolutionary biology. We should not assume that requiring ID advocates or creationists to take a course in evolutionary biology will increase the likelihood that they will give adequate attention to evolutionary theory in the classroom. Of course, we must make sure our educators are qualified, and a required course in evolutionary biology is a great idea. However, it might not be enough.

As for the issue of class time: What could be more worthy of time in the biology classroom than a proper presentation of that which grounds the entire field of study?

This question has particular relevance today. As reported in The Florida Times Union, Florida State Senator Stephen Wise has announced that he plans to introduce a new bill requiring that all teachers who teach evolutionary theory also discuss Intelligent Design in the classroom.

In step with America's National Science Education Standards (1996), the Florida Board of Education requires that evolutionary theory be taught as the foundation of the biological sciences. Senator Wise says, "If you're going to teach evolution, then you have to teach the other side so you can have critical thinking."

Wise wrongly implies that Intelligent Design is a legitimate scientific alternative to evolutionary theory. His argument is flawed, but his conclusion remains appealing. We do need more discussion and critical thinking in the science classroom; we just need to make sure that it is done properly.

If Wise's proposed legislation goes through, it might eventually lead to a different piece of legislation, one requiring that all biology textbooks include a section in which Intelligent Design is adequately dealt with: that is, debunked according to scientific standards and theory.

The kind of legislation Wise is proposing will not end the tension between science and religion in America, nor will it cure America of its ignorance; but it might be a step in the right direction. It may even be a necessary step. Even more, there does not seem to be a good reason to challenge such legislation. On the one hand, there is the questionable argument for NOMA; on the other, an argument for pessimism rooted in the fear that teachers will not be able to do their jobs and students will not be able to learn the material.

While we cannot support Wise's thinking, we should not oppose his bill--that is, assuming it only entails a call for discussion and critical thinking. (Compare Wise's proposal to the recent legislation approved in Louisiana, which I also spoke out in favor of elsewhere.) Of course, if Wise proposes legislation that explicitly regards Intelligent Design as legitimate science on a par with evolutionary theory, then it must be stopped. But I do not expect Wise to make that mistake.

The point is, rather than spend our political efforts trying to keep ID out of our public schools, let us instead fight to make science education stronger by explicitly debunking ID in the classroom. If the scientific community continues to resist all discussions of ID in the classroom, it will only add more fuel to the fire of ignorance and prejudice against scientific methodology.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

No Valid Arguments For Presuppositionalism, Revisited

As you may know, I posted a short argument back in December proving that presuppositional apologetics cannot produce valid arguments. I should have been clearer about what that means.

After all, presuppositionalism per say does not make arguments. People make arguments. And, obviously, a person can be a presuppositionalist and still make valid arguments about all sorts of things. So why did I say that presuppositional apologetics cannot produce valid arguments?

Presuppositional apologetics are arguments for presuppositionalism, and are thus either directly or indirectly arguments against atheism. When I said that presuppositional apologetics cannot produce valid arguments, I meant that there can be no valid arguments for presuppositionalism, and that presuppositionalists cannot claim there are any valid arguments against atheism. No matter what a presuppositionalist says, they cannot regard it as a valid argument against atheism. If a person is arguing for presuppositionalism, then they are not making a valid argument. That is, unless we forego the requirement of logic that says valid arguments do not beg the question.

If you review the discussion where Paul Manata tried to defeat my argument [Update: the file is no longer available online; if you want to see the discussion in question, send me a message and I'll email the file to you; the reason you need the file to see the discussion is that Manata deleted several of my posts, so the version available on Triablogue is incomplete; for further info about this, see here], you will see that Manata never grasped what the argument was about. He tried to find counterexamples, but he had no understanding of what a counterexample might even mean, because he didn’t understand the argument to begin with.

I’m no longer going to try to explain it to him or correct his confusions, because he’s proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he is not interested in a philosophical discussion at all. He is only interested in claiming victory. While I have no intention of engaging him any further (at least, not on terms which he can mangle at will; again, see here for an explanation), I want to post this here to help people understand where Manata went wrong, if anyone is interested.

First, we have the issue of the argument’s premises. Manata says that presuppositionalists do not necessarily grant both of the premises on which my argument is built. More specifically, he says that while presuppositionalism might involve circular reasoning, it is not the bad kind of circularity. Some circular reasoning is okay, after all, so long as the premises are less questionable than the conclusion.

The problem is, the conclusion drawn by arguments for presuppositionalism (that all knowledge presupposes the existence of God) is no more questionable than what presuppositionalists take to be the assumption underlying it: namely, that God exists. This premise is the most untrustworthy of all, according to atheists like myself.

Presuppositionalism, if it means anything, means that all propositions presuppose the truth of the proposition that God exists (whatever that means). Thus, any argument made for presuppositionalism must presuppose the truth of that proposition. In other words, the truth of that proposition must be assumed, or else the argument is not an argument for presuppositionalism. Thus, a presuppositionalist cannot argue for presuppositionalism, cannot argue for theism, and cannot argue against atheism, without assuming that God exists. Thus, any argument for presuppositionalism begs the question against atheism.

That is the logic of my argument, and it is sound. A presuppositionalist cannot claim that there are any valid arguments against atheism, or any valid arguments for presuppositionalism, without begging the question--and that is the bad kind of circular reasoning.

This leaves Manata with his so-called counterexamples. The problem is, Manata never made a compelling case for a counterexample. All he did is suggest that some premises, like the presuppositionalism premise, cannot be argued for with valid arguments. He never made a case for why I or anyone else should adopt any of those suggested premises. I even tried to explain to him why his proposed premises were problematic.

He left one premise dangling in the air when he ended our discussion, the premise regarding global skepticism. All knowledge presupposes the existence of a knower, according to Manata. Since a global skeptic can doubt the existence of a knower, then all arguments for that premise beg the question against the global skeptic. This suggests that "all knowledge presupposes the existence of a knower" cannot be argued for with valid arguments.

Now, if I were to try to argue for such a premise, then Manata could be correct in accusing me of begging the question. Since I have not put forward such an argument, Manata has falsely accused me of begging the question against the global skeptic.

Of course, the fact that we cannot argue for a premise does not mean the premise must be false. However, in the case of this premise, we have reason to question its value. As some philosophers have argued, we might do well to imagine knowledge without a separate knower. The idea is that knowledge does not exist independently of the act of knowing, so that there is no knower above and beyond the knowledge itself. In this case, it is not true that all knowledge presupposes the existence of a knower. Rather, we should say that all knowledge instantiates the existence of a knower.

In my view of epistemology, we should not claim that all knowledge presupposes anything at all. We must regard some knowledge—a certain class of propositions—as existing without any prior assumptions to ground them. This class should be defined functionally, as it relates to the behavior of an individual, and not in terms of any abstract criteria which could be determined a priori.

Indeed, propositional knowledge must come into being at some point in a person’s development, and the functionality of those initial fragments of knowing cannot be built upon prior assumptions, or else they wouldn’t be initial fragments of knowing. It seems to me that at all times, a person has propositional knowledge which is directly associated with experiential determinants, and is not based on any other propositions for its functionality.

We should note here that, even if one were to reject my views on epistemology here, it would not mean that Paul Manata had provided a sound counterexample to my argument. For, even if we were to adopt the premise that “all knowledge presupposes the existence of X,” for any X, then we would have to conclude that such a premise could not be argued for with valid arguments. Unless and until somebody can show that such a premise can be argued for without begging the question, my argument has not been defeated.

Clarifying Theological Noncognitivism

I want to clarify some misconceptions about theological noncognitivism. The first has to do with the way theological noncognitivists use theological terms. The second has to do with the difference between theological noncognitivism and other forms of atheism, such as “weak atheism” or “teapot agnosticism.”

On the usage of theistic terms, such as “God”

Paul Manata has recently criticized me for using the term “God” at all. He says that my arguments for theological noncognitivism and my argument against the ability of presuppositionalism to support itself with valid arguments are inconsistent, because I reject the meaning of the term “God” in the former and yet utilize the term “God” in the latter. How can I use the term “God,” if I reject all claims that have the word God in them?

Well, for one thing, I don’t reject all claims that have the word “God” in them. I never said I did. Manata’s criticism here rests on a fabrication. He says I told him I "reject all claims that have the word God in them." He even used quotation marks, suggesting that I used those exact words. In reality, what I said to Manata was that I reject “any premises which presuppose that the term ‘God’ is understood.”

The difference between my statement and Manata’s misquotation is significant. I reject premises in arguments which presuppose that the term “God” is understood, because the meaning of the term is in dispute. That does not mean that I reject every use of the term “God.”

We can, for example, use the term “God” in a literary sense, to indicate a mythological character. This is the only way I know how to talk about the God of the Bible. Speaking about God in this way does not mean God is anything other than a plot device in a story, a function in a narrative which resonates in the minds of its speakers, listeners, and readers. This notion of God is not problematic. We just assume for the sake of the story that God has whatever qualities are necessary so that it is capable of doing whatever the story would have it do. The plot does not require a sound footing in philosophy to keep moving. It’s just a story.

When we discuss the literary notion of God, however, we might imagine that it functions in the narrative much the way a person functions in the real world; that it signifies the beliefs, desires, and feelings any person might feel. We can even find ourselves imagining this God as if it were an actual person in the world, not worrying about what God is, exactly, because we are not trying to say anything philosophically sophisticated about the world. Believers may thus casually switch from a fictional to a non-fictional narrative. However, we cannot assume that, because we can discuss the literary notion of God, we can understand what it would mean for God to exist in a non-literary sense. Many people make this mistake, which is why we find people talking about “God” without knowing what they mean, if they mean anything at all.

Looked at more broadly, we might say theology is an elaborate extrapolation from mythology into philosophy. My view is that this extrapolation lacks a coherent conceptual footing. It is not the term “God” in general that I reject, but the theistic usage in particular. For many, perhaps most, religious believers, the literary and theistic usages are conflated. We therefore cannot assume that the term “God” is going to be understood when we are making arguments about theism or atheism. This is why I told Paul Manata that I reject arguments which presuppose that the term “God” is understood.

We can use the term “God,” if we make it clear that we are using a literary notion. We can also use the term “God” in an extra-literary sense (even without defining it), if we want to investigate the possibility of theism itself. Only by tentatively adopting the theistic usage can we investigate it’s potential and futility. Thus, when I use the term “God” in arguments against theism, I am not using it in a literary sense, nor am I presupposing that the term “God” is understood. On the contrary, I am supposing that the term “God” is not understood, and I am investigating what happens if we try to understand the term as it is used in theistic discourse.

On "teapot agnosticism" and other forms of atheism

Paul Manata has also criticized me for calling myself an atheist, on the grounds that some philosophers think that theological noncognitivism is incompatible with atheism.

As I pointed out to Manata in his own thread (though he has since deleted the post; see here for an explanation), "
we can define atheism so as to include theological noncognitivism. For theological noncognitivists do not maintain any beliefs that, according to them, could be called 'belief in God.' Therefore, they explicitly deny having anything they would call 'belief in God.' This makes theological noncognitivists atheists, as far as I'm concerned, and it does not require them to attribute any meaning to the term 'God.'" Thus, we can distinguish between strands of atheism and recognize theological noncognitivism as a unique, and uniquely strong, strand.

As I noted in my post on teapot agnosticism, my view is that other strands of atheism are just as problematic as theism, in so far as they presume that theistic terms have any coherence at all.

Now, somebody else has commented on that blog post recently, claiming that theological noncognitivism is the same as teapot agnosticism. Their claim is that the existence of the celestial teapot is just as mysterious as the existence of God. This is not true. As I pointed out in that post, we can understand what it means for a teapot to be in orbit around the sun. The only mystery confronting us in the “celestial teapot” argument is how the teapot got to be in orbit to begin with. Detailed facts about the history of the celestial teapot remain a mystery; but the notion of a celestial teapot is philosophically unproblematic. Not so with theistic notions.

Theistic discourse makes the terms “God” and “the supernatural” impossible to understand. This is what distinguishes me and other theological noncognitivists from “teapot agnostics,” making theological noncognitivism not only a strong form of atheism, but a philosophically necessary attitude towards theism in general.

Notes From Triablogue, Part II: The Remarkable Paul Manata

As you may know, I’ve been defending one of my arguments against criticisms made by Triablogger Paul Manata. Well, I had been defending my argument, until Manata decided to delete my posts with extreme prejudice and then close the thread to prevent any further discussion of the topic.

After the first time Manata deleted one of my posts, I posted an argument explaining why his stated reasons for deleting it were not valid. His stated reasons were that I had responded to his own arguments without argument, posting only dismissive comments without rational support. He said he was making “new rules,” and that dismissive comments without argument would be deleted.

Since I’d been receiving all posts to that thread in my email, I had a copy of the post in question, and I was able to repost it, pointing out that Manata was incorrect in asserting my comments were made without argumentative support.

I then posted three more times. The first two posts further explained the failure of Manata’s proposed counterarguments against, and elaborated upon the sense of, my original argument. The third post briefly corrected a small error in the preceding post. None of those posts contained dismissive comments. All of the posts contained arguments (except for the one post making a slight correction to an argument) and nothing else. Thus, I was following Manata’s “new rules.”

Yet, Paul Manata deleted all of those posts. He says he deleted them because they contained “rubbish and name-calling.” So these are even newer rules: No rubbish and no name-calling.

If Manata wants to restrict me from calling him any names, who am I to stop him? If he wants to delete my posts for pointing out that he is an incompetent, ignorant fool, that's his right. However, I didn't call him any names in those deleted posts. When he said I "still want to post rubbish and name-calling," he was flat-out lying, and I can prove it. Before Manata deleted my most recent posts, I saved a copy of the entire thread to my computer. If anyone would like a copy, just comment here or drop me an email and I'll pass it along.

Now, whether or not any of my arguments are "rubbish" is surely debatable; any respectable moderator of a philosophical discussion would welcome the defense of an argument that he or she thought was "rubbish." Deleting a post because it contains what the moderator of the board considers a poor argument is unequivocally anti-philosophical.

It is clear that Manata doesn't want anybody to read my arguments, and that he is only interested in preserving whatever reputation he thinks he has at Triablogue. Manata has no respect for the principles of philosophical discourse. He would rather lie and silence his opposition than engage in an honest discussion. As I said to him already, he might eventually grow out of this stage in his intellectual development. One can only hope.

It's worth noting that Manata's actions here were most likely partially motivated by another discussion I'd been having with him in another thread, in which I pointed out a variety of his shortcomings. Manata came out looking pathetic in that thread, and he'd probably delete some of my posts there if he could. The only reason why he can't, I think, is because that thread was started by (and hence is regulated by) Steve Hays. It's not Manata's puppy.

Will Hays stoop so low as to delete my posts as well? I guess we'll see.

As it happens, I hadn't finished defending my original argument in Manata's thread. (I haven't finished responding to Steve Hays, either.) What I will do eventually is post a further defense and elaboration of my arguments here some time in the relatively near future. I don't think I'll bother posting on Triablogue again . . . certainly not in any threads Manata is regulating. Probably not on anybody else's threads, either. Their lack of respect for philosophy is apparent.