Thursday, July 14, 2011

God, Consciousness, and Existence

A friend has asked me to review a particular article, which is somewhat lengthy, concerning Christian theism. He attempts to demonstrate that the idea of the Christian God is internally inconsistent, and thus logically incoherent, and therefore false. His argument, if I am representing it fairly, is thus:

1. Whatever is true is derived from existence, not consciousness.
2. If there is a God, we are derived from consciousness.
3. There is a God (Christian claim).
4. Therefore, we are derived from consciousness (from [2-3]).
5. We exist.
6. Therefore, we are derived from existence, not consciousness (from [1, 5]).

Of course, (4) and (6) are contradictory, and thus we have a classic reductio ad absurdum. So is Christianity doomed? Well, his argument is logically valid. But are the premises sound? What is his justification for the argument?

First, he supports premise one by stating that

You wouldn't say that Albany is the capital of New York only if you agree that it is, would you? Of course not. You recognize implicitly that Albany is the capital of New York whether you agree or not, whether you knew it or not, whether you wish Syracuse were the capital instead. That's call [sic] the primacy of existence. It is the recognition that the objects of consciousness hold metaphysical primacy over consciousness.

However, it must be noted that this is only an argument for the logical priority of ontology to epistemology. Therein lies the problem with the argument. In fact, it seems as though there is the fallacy of equivocation happening on the term “consciousness” as it is meant in premise 1 and as it is meant in premise 2. No Christian, to my knowledge, would say “we derive our existence from epistemology.” Rather, we would say we derive our existence from the existence of the first consciousness; consciousness being ontological. It is difficult to see why there cannot be existence that is also conscious, so long as we think persons also exist.[1]

Now the article turns to a very small, minority view among Christian theists: the view of determinism. He claims, “The Christian conception of the universe is analogous to the fictional realm of a cartoon. This realm is controlled by an all-controlling, all-determining agent which can create any object it wants and revise their nature whenever it wants.” This radical view was probably not held by any major thinker since maybe Descartes. Add to that the fact that most Christians aren’t theological determinists (nor fatalists), and we have a classic strawman.

The remainder of the article is his correspondence with other Christians, and as nearly as I can tell, it all relies on either irrelevant issues or the argument as presented above. Arguments that trade on ambiguities are often the most difficult to defeat, for the fallacy lies within the definition of the terms being used. If we tease out the usage of “consciousness” in premises 1 and 2, however, the argument becomes baffling:

1*. Whatever is true is derived from existence, not epistemology.
2*. If there is a God, we are derived from personhood.
4*. Therefore, we are derived from personhood.
6*. Therefore, we are derived from existence, not epistemology.

Yet here, (4*) and (6*) are not logically incompatible (at least not without further argument). The author asserts later on that he does not in fact claim “ontology precedes epistemology” (even though he agrees with that statement), but rather that the consciousness does not precede existence. However, this does not make the argument any better. In this case, the first premise really seems to be saying:

1’. No consciousness can ever precede existence.

But that is manifestly false. For my father’s consciousness is metaphysically prior to my existence (both temporally and logically). So perhaps he (more charitably and more likely) means:

1+. For any A, A’s existence metaphysically precedes A’s consciousness.

(1+) is clearly very true. But in that case, what would (2+) be?

2+. Our existence is derived from God’s consciousness.

But in what way does (2+) go against (1+)? We may say God’s existence logically precedes, if not temporally, his consciousness. But that wouldn’t preclude our existence coming from his consciousness. I don’t expect to correspond with author, if only because he seems quite condescending when challenged. It’s not attractive. He largely attempts what I call the “case by intimidation.” The idea is to quote or discuss philosophy in as abstract terms as possible, then declare your case “obvious” or prima facie, or universally recognized, or whatnot, in the hopes your opponent will be shamed or confused into an irrelevant rebuttal (or simply stop arguing at all).

His argument is not at all clear, nor does it seem to make sense once teased out in any and all of its implications (I have shown multiple ways the argument could be understood by its hearers [including its author]).

One final potential interpretation comes to me. He seems to be using “consciousness” as personhood (which contains epistemology, but is not itself epistemology). And while the first premise (1+) would still be true, the second again would be utterly mystifying. Why is it that we cannot derive our existence from God’s personhood? If we move to suggesting that no being can derive its existence from another person, I think again that is demonstrably false; but even if all such counterexamples fail, I find that particular premise utterly unjustified. If the author expects people to take the argument seriously, he owes an account of which of these above options he intends, and if none, a better argument itself!

                [1] This is not to say that whatever exists is a person, but rather the converse; whatever is a person exists. Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised if a conscious person also exists.

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