How the Theist Checkmates Himself

The Claim that God Exists and How It Commits Believers to a Performative Inconsistency

by Anton Thorn

 

 Below are my opening statement and first response in a hypothetical debate on the validity of god-belief with Christian apologist Dr. A-. I will be employing the principles of Objectivist atheology to argue that god-belief is at root invalid, and Dr. A- will rely on so-called presuppositional argumentation to validate his god-belief. While this text is not a transcription of a debate which has actually taken place, it does summarize the kind of approach I would recommend for an argument opposing god-belief, should one undertake a challenge to a public debate on the existence of God.

Some of the terms used here may be new to some readers. In that case I recommend they review their definitions in my collection of Important Terms. Some of the points included here are based on an argument I provide in The Issue of Metaphysical Primacy, which I encourage readers to review.

 

* * * * * *

I. An Opening Statement

Good evening…

In defending my position that god-belief is invalid, I am willing at the outset to lay bare my starting point, a fundamental which even the theist himself must assume, but which he assumes implicitly and unwittingly, and that is the metaphysical primacy of existence, i.e., the principle that existence exists independent of consciousness. The primacy of existence is inescapable, and is demonstrably evident when one attempts to assert any kind of truth claim.

The theist is most likely unaware of this principle because his commitment to god-belief prevents him from thinking in terms of essentials. By laying bare my objective starting point, which is the fact of existence, I point to the foundation of my certainty, one which even Dr. A- must accept in any attempt to question or dispute my certainty, thus confirming the validity of my position at the expense of his confessional investment.

 

The epistemological priority of the issue of metaphysical primacy

Before we engage in any cognitive project, the issue of metaphysical primacy must be addressed if our efforts to establish certainty are to be objective. If we do not address the issue of metaphysical primacy at the beginning of our enterprise in thought, some position on the issue of metaphysical primacy will be implicit, and without identifying what that position is in terms of explicit essentials, we have no guarantee that our cognition - and thus our arguments - will consistently assume a valid position on the issue of metaphysical primacy, and hence any claim we make to objectivity will be premature and unfounded.

The issue of metaphysical primacy may be a new concept for many of you. The validity of the issue of metaphysical primacy is established by the fact that knowledge is hierarchical in nature, and consequently we must identify our starting point and founding principles. The issue of metaphysical primacy states that, to be objective, our knowledge and reasoning must be consistent with the fact that there is a fundamental distinction between the objects which we perceive, which are existents, and the means by which we perceive them, which is consciousness, and that the former holds metaphysical primacy over the latter. Consciousness does not create the identity of the objects which we perceive; rather, consciousness identifies that which we perceive. This is the primacy of existence principle: that existence exists independent of consciousness, that the objects which we perceive do not conform to our consciousness, but that our consciousness must conform to the objects we perceive. If this distinction and the hierarchical relationship between existence and consciousness is not maintained throughout cognition, we will not achieve objective certainty in our conclusions.

The primacy of existence principle states that we must start with the fact of existence as the cornerstone of our thought. Whatever we posit in our reasoning, we are assuming either implicitly or explicitly that existence exists. Since existence holds metaphysical primacy over consciousness, it makes no sense to begin with a form of consciousness as our starting point. Consciousness is consciousness of something, i.e., of existence. Thus, even to posit a form of consciousness, we are already assuming, either implicitly or explicitly, the fact that existence exists as an irreducible primary. So, to achieve and maintain objectivity in our thought, we begin with the fact of existence rather than assuming that some form of consciousness must be responsible for "creating" it. In this fundamental principle, then, we see that the case for objectivity is the case against god-belief. Why? Because existence exists, and existence holds metaphysical primacy over consciousness.

 

Theism and Performative Inconsistency

The debate on the existence of God, specifically of a universe-creating, reality-ruling form of consciousness beyond nature, is not exempt from dealing with the issue of metaphysical primacy. This is because all argument presupposes a view of reality. Is our view of reality a consistently formed set of principles which conform to its object, which is reality itself? Or is our view of reality a hodgepodge of tacitly held, incomprehensible and non-irreducible assumptions collected under a vague heading, assumptions which conform not to reality itself, but to our hopes, fears and psychological anxieties, whose object is neither explicitly identified nor fully understood?

I argue that my opponent, Dr. A-, has already conceded tonight's debate by showing up and preparing arguments in support of his claims. Those arguments presuppose, either implicitly or explicitly, a fundamental view of reality and of truth, and his relationship to them. By asserting a truth claim about reality and by arguing for the validity of that claim to truth, one assumes that this is true independently of one's own consciousness.

For instance, if I say that man requires nourishment in order to live, which is a truth claim, I am implicitly assuming that this truth obtains - that this claim is true - independent of my awareness. In other words, I am assuming that existence exists, and that existence exists independent of consciousness. I am not assuming that man requires nourishment only so long as I affirm it, or only so long as I am aware of it, or only so long as I recognize its factuality. I am not assuming that man requires nourishment only so long as I want it to be. I am not assuming that the claim that man requires nourishment is true only so long as it conforms to the content of my consciousness, be it my imagination, my desire, my memories or my fears. Instead, by claiming that it is the case that man requires nourishment in order to live and expecting others to recognize the truth of this claim, I am implicitly assuming that this fact is a state of affairs independent of my awareness. In claiming that it is truth, I am saying that it is a fact of reality as such, that it is a fact that obtains even if I am not aware of it.

Dr. A- has come here this evening to argue for the supposed truth of a particular claim. At this point it does not concern us what specifically that claim is in terms of its content. It is not the what of Dr. A's claim that I want you to focus on at this time, but the that of his claiming; in other words, not what he is claiming, but the very fact that he is claiming something to be true. Dr. A- wants to claim that X is true. In doing so, he is implicitly assuming that X is the case independent of his own consciousness, and independent of our own consciousness as well. He will claim that X obtains regardless of our awareness of X, regardless of our understanding of X, regardless of our affirmation of X, and regardless of our desire to recognize the supposed truth of X.

Essentially, in claiming the supposed truth of X and by arguing for the supposed truth of X, Dr. A- is implicitly assuming that existence exists independent of consciousness - of his own consciousness, of our consciousness, of any consciousness. By making any claim to truth, and arguing for that claim, regardless of its truth, Dr. A- is implicitly assuming the metaphysical primacy of existence: that existence exists independent of consciousness, and that the task of consciousness is not to create or dictate existence or reality (reality being 'the realm of existence'), but to be aware of existence, to identify that which exists independent of consciousness.

By affirming the primacy of existence, even implicitly, Dr. A- is affirming the very principle which will undercut every argument he can put forth tonight for his claim that God exists. Why is that? To answer that, we now look at the content of his claim, the what of his claim. Above, we saw that the that of his claim - the fact that he puts forth a claim about reality - necessarily implied the metaphysical primacy of existence principle. But the what of his claim affirms the opposite principle, the metaphysical primacy of consciousness.

When Dr. A- wants to affirm that a universe-creating, reality-ruling form of consciousness exists, he affirms a view of reality which is diametrically opposed to the primacy of existence principle which his act of presenting a claim and arguing for its truth assumes. That view of reality is called the primacy of consciousness. The primacy of consciousness states that existence does not exist independent of consciousness, that existence - reality - conforms to the contents and/or dictates of consciousness. This is the subjective view of reality, a view implicit to all god-belief, and we find this most consistently embraced in western monotheistic models such as Christianity and Islam. It is the view that existence - reality or the universe (universe being the sum total of existence) - finds its source in a form of consciousness. That form of consciousness is usually said to be some kind of omnipotent will.

So even before he has begun to give an argument for the claim that God exists, we already see a performative inconsistency in operation when one claims something to be true of reality, implying that existence exists independent of consciousness, but in the content of that claim asserts that existence depends on a form of consciousness. He wants the benefit of the primacy of existence in order to assert his claim as truth, but he also wants the fantasy of the primacy of consciousness to assert the idea that existence requires a form of consciousness to account for it.

 

Philosophical Objectivism: The Solution to Theism's Errors

The obvious resolution to this is to embrace Objectivism: to recognize that existence exists independent of consciousness as our starting point, and proceed from there. Apologists do not like this for it cannot support their claim that a God exists: if we start with the fact of existence as our primary, there's no need to posit a god to "create" it. Thus they will challenge Objectivists to "account for" the fact of existence. Apologists are thus not satisfied with starting with the fact of existence as such, for they want to posit some form of consciousness prior to existence, and allegedly this consciousness "accounts for" the fact of existence. It is here where the apologist commits the fallacy of the stolen concept, for he attempts to assert consciousness while ignoring its root: the fact of existence.

Advocacy of the primacy of consciousness view of reality is like trying to lift a tall stool over your head while you're sitting on it. It just can't be done. All your weight is on the stool, and your feet cannot touch the ground, so you have no way to lift the stool. Similarly, the primacy of consciousness asserts consciousness prior to existence, which means: consciousness with nothing to be conscious of. But consciousness conscious of nothing is a contradiction in terms. If it is not conscious of something, then whatever "it" is, we cannot identify it as conscious. Denying this results in a stolen concept. The concept 'consciousness' is "stolen" from its hierarchical relationship to existence. The proper philosophical alternative is simply to start with the fact of existence, and recognize the importance of consciousness' dependent relationship to it. Only then is objectivity possible. However, history has shown that men have rejected objectivity in order to embrace a god-belief.

Therefore, I will propose a challenge to Dr. A- tonight. I will ask him to demonstrate the validity of the primacy of consciousness view of reality, a condition which would have to be valid in order for his claim that God exists to be accepted as true. To demonstrate the validity of the primacy of consciousness, he will have to show us in no uncertain terms how an act of consciousness can create matter, how an act of consciousness can revise the identity of entities (e.g., water to wine), and how an act of consciousness can revise the behavior of entities (e.g., man walking on unfrozen water). Unless he can do this, he will not have met his burden to validate the essence of his god-belief, and meanwhile he will have only confirmed my position, a position squarely founded on the metaphysical primacy of existence, that god-belief is, by nature, completely invalid.

Thank you.

 

II. Hypothetical Response to Anticipated Rebuttal Points:

Before addressing some of Dr. A-'s remarks, I'd like to point out that nowhere did he attempt to validate the primacy of consciousness view of reality, even though this is an assumption which one must accept in order to grant his god-belief even the potential validity which he'd like to establish. He offered a few unargued points why he thinks it is not a concern, and thus shows himself to be evading the issue of metaphysical primacy. But nowhere does he show that it is not a legitimate issue in philosophy, nor does he seem to recognize its overall import to cognition as such. With this point clearly borne in mind, let us turn now to some of the points which he did kindly provide.

Dr. A- claims that God exists "because of the impossibility of the contrary." Oddly, he nowhere establishes this alleged impossibility; he only asserts it as if its truth were self-evident. By contrast, I argue that one cannot rationally accept the claim that there is a god by virtue of the impossibility of contradiction. One would have to contradict the primacy of existence by asserting that the universe came into existence by an act of will, i.e., by an act of consciousness, while implicitly assuming the validity of this very principle in order to claim that his god-belief is true. He simply wants to have his cake, and to eat it, too.

As I mentioned earlier, what we have here is a performative inconsistency resulting in a contradiction at the root-level of cognition. And insofar as Dr. A-'s emphasis on the validity of one's starting points is concerned, he is correct to stress this, only he favors a view of reality which contradicts the reality in which we exist (as if there were more than one reality) by positing existence beyond nature. This amounts to asserting existence without nature, in other words, existence without identity, and by positing a form of consciousness which holds metaphysical primacy over existence.

Theologians are explicit in their rejection of identity in their repetitive confessional statement that "God is infinite." Infinite does not mean "really large" but "larger than any specific quantity or measure." But to exist is to be something, to be something specific, to have identity, to be itself. A is A, and if A should exist, it must be A. Existence exists. This is axiomatic and absolute, and thus Dr. A-'s defense of his god-belief amounts to a contradiction of the axioms - which he himself must accept even to question or deny them - and is thus an attack on the very foundation of all knowledge.

Dr. A- will argue that his particular god-belief, a self-suffocating package-deal of biblical proportions, is the key to rationality. But what is his definition of rationality, and where did he get it? And how can his god-belief be the key to rationality when its central idea - the notion of a universe-creating, reality-ruling form of consciousness - is in contradiction to the foundation of rationality, which are the axioms and the primacy of existence principle? Not surprisingly, he does not say.

Instead of directly defending his god-belief, Dr. A- will respond by attacking the basis of my reasoning, the foundation of my certainty, even the validity of my very mind, in order to shake my confidence in that certainty. But what is the basis of my certainty? The basis of my certainty is the undeniable, irreducible and perceptually self-evident fact that existence exists. This truth is implicit in every act of consciousness, since consciousness is consciousness of something, i.e., of existence. When an infant sees his parents and the mobile dangling above his head, when he hears the voices of his siblings, when he feels the bars of his cribs, he is perceiving existence. The same is the case for a grown adult, even if he advocates a mystical view of reality, as Dr. A- does. Objectivism makes the implicit explicit and strips of it all non-essentials, taking that which all thought takes completely for granted and what most thinkers dismiss as philosophically irrelevant, and recognizes its fundamental role in our thought.

Existence exists, and that which exists is that which exists. Thus we see that the law of identity, that A is A, is already implicit in the starting point of my certainty. Does Dr. A- deny that existence exists? In order to deny it, he would still have to assume it. Existence is right there in front of him. He can deny it all he wants, but he will only be contradicting himself, not establishing some new hidden "truth" which has allegedly escaped the mass of humanity which his god-belief relegates to the category of the damned. Does Dr. A- hold that my certainty is unfounded? Well, if so, how would he argue this, what is his concept of certainty, where did he get it, and what alternative would he suggest as the foundation of certainty?

Dr. A- concedes that existence in fact does exist, only to contend that "the atheist" cannot "account for" the fact of existence. But what could this mean, "account for" the fact of existence? Anything one points to in order to "account for" existence would itself have to exist in order for such an exercise as such to provide a viable explanation, wouldn't it? But that wouldn't get us any further, because we'd still be asserting the fact of existence. In anticipating this route of contention, which I have seen many times before [1], we see that the theist's slip is showing: He wants to posit a form of consciousness as "prior to" the fact of existence, thus committing himself to a stolen concept and the primacy of consciousness fallacy. A fallacious line of interrogation, which such questions are, can only lead to more fallacy. It is invalid, and now it has been headed off at the pass so that we should not hear this in his rebuttal.

Does Dr. A- question the validity of my mind and its ability to achieve certainty? Perhaps this is the point on which he actually wants to place the focus of his apologetic. Unseat the reprobate from his own mind, and the true believer can replenish it with whatever "truths" his mystical traditions supply. But the validity of consciousness is axiomatic: it is the means by which man is aware. If Dr. A- denies this, he is welcome to show us how he can validate his consciousness without assuming it, which would have to be an attempt to validate his consciousness without consciousness. I wish him luck in this endeavor, he'll certainly need it.

Dr. A- intimated - without directly stating - that "the Christian triune God of the Bible" is his fundamental starting point. By what means does he achieve awareness of his alleged starting point? Certainly not by means of sense perception, for even he has stated that the existence of God is "not verified by empirical testing methods." This only tells us the means by which he is not aware of God's existence, not how he is aware of it, and he has yet to address this.

If Dr. A-'s means of achieving awareness of the existence of God is the Bible, then he's learned about God's existence by reading a book, which is second-hand information at best. This makes God no better than a hazy inference, one choked by stolen concepts to boot. So it obviously cannot be a cognitive starting point.

And furthermore, pointing to the contents of the Bible merely underscores Dr. A-'s own implicit assumption of the axioms, which he seems to reject as fundamentals. Besides, as Annie Laurie Gaylor points out, "If the belief in god were natural, there would be no need to teach it." [2] We already know that existence exists because it is perceptually self-evident, but most people dismiss this as "the obvious." But in fact, that's the whole point! You can't deny it, and it does not change. The misunderstandings and errors come in when some thinkers dismiss "the obvious" as having no philosophical import. Fundamental truths, for some thinkers, can only be recondite, elusive, mysterious or incomprehensible in nature. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Furthermore, to deepen the level of suspicion plaguing his position, Dr. A- fails to tell us precisely what "God" is. Most descriptions of "God" typically give us plenty of description of what "God" is not, but precious little in regard to what "God" is. [3] To what does the word "God" refer, and by what means does Dr. A- or any other theist claim to know this? He does not say, he merely asserts it as knowledge and evades a rational defense of it. Without addressing questions like these, Dr. A- is arguing for the validity of a floating abstraction - an illegitimately formed, anti-conceptual idea which has no tie to reality. This is unacceptable.

Can it be that he's just pulling our leg with all his talk about a god?

So we have the rejection of a legitimate starting point - which is informed by the Objectivist axioms, the assertion of stolen concepts and floating abstractions in the place of legitimate fundamentals, and second-handed certainty at best. This is hardly rational; indeed, it is completely irrational. And for what purpose? Blank out. It seems that Dr. A- is merely saying "God exists because God exists," which is nothing more than a repetition of the very claim he's called to defend.

Thank you.

 

Anton Thorn

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Notes

[1] See Correcting Common Errors.

[2] Ernestine L. Rose, "A Defence of Atheism" (1878, Women Without Superstition ed. Annie Laurie Gaylor, Madison, WI: FFRF, 1997), p. 82.

[3] See The Ruling Consciousness for more criticism in regard to this point.

 

 

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