Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Part 4: Word Games

I love Star Trek and everything about it.  Especially tribbles.  In fact, I love tribbles so much, that I want them to be real.  Better yet, I know that tribbles are real, and I can prove it [1].
  1. Tribbles are small, hairy mammals, usually spherical in shape.
  2. Tribbles are born pregnant.
  3. Tribbles react violently in the presence of Klingons.
  4. If tribbles did not exist, they would not be able to react violently in the presence of Klingons.
Therefore, tribbles exist, right?  After all, how could tribbles hate Klingons if tribbles did not exist somewhere in the real world to hate them?  The logic is perfect and indisputable!

So where the hell is my tribble?

Obviously there’s a problem here, in that you can’t just go around “defining” things into existence.  Because when I claim that tribbles hate Klingons, I am not really claiming that physical tribbles physically hate physical Klingons in the real, physical world.  What I am really saying is that if I should ever encounter a small, hairy mammal with the incorrigible properties of being born pregnant and reacting violently to Klingons, then that thing would be called a tribble.  Definitional truth is not the same thing as descriptive truth, and different rules govern the validity of each category.

Remember that I am free to define the properties of tribbles in any way I like, and those definitions are 100% true because I say so.  But the moment I try to claim that something exists, I'm crossing over into a descriptive statement of reality where the epistemic rules are now totally different.  So while philosophers may continually debate over what exactly all those rules are, at least some rules are pretty well established.  Good descriptive statements must be coherent, consistent, and inductive; Good descriptive statements must have the power to explain a given phenomenon simply and effectively; and good descriptive statements must allow me to exercise some physical choice in the real world that leads to a desirable outcome.  We can logically “deduce” tribbles all day, but absolutely none of it will matter until I'm physically holding one in my hands.

Which brings us our next philosophical failure of Christian apologetics: The idea that you can somehow "prove" synthetic propositions just by sitting in an armchair and thinking really hard about them.

Deep down, Christian apologists must realize that there's no real evidence for their spiritual claims, but they're psychologically conditioned never to admit that openly under any circumstances.  So they have to resort to convoluted word games instead, designed to rationalize their beliefs in the face of an obvious absence of anything tangible.  And nothing demonstrates this more perfectly than the ontological argument for the existence of God, which usually goes something like this [2]:
  1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
  2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
  3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
  4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
  5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
  6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.
Now if this argument sounds like nothing more to you than a jumbled mess of spaghetti logic, then you would be right.  It's as if Christians are deliberately trying to bury their apparent empirical failure under a cloak of long-winded rhetorical jargon.  Sometimes Christians will even try to formalize it according to the rules of modal logic and everything, as if that somehow magically adds to its legitimacy.  But no matter how the argument is spun, it's easy to see that the whole thing is little more than a desperate attempt to conclude God with words rather than demonstrate God with evidence.

Just look at the very first premise and ask yourself: what in the world is a "maximally great being?"  Because last time I checked, "greatness" was not exactly an inherent physical property of things that we can objectively verify.  But ignoring that, Christians usually just take this to mean that God is the "greatest conceivable" of all possible beings - that God is, by definition, the coolest, awesomest, spiffiest, gee-whiz entity that can possibly be imagined; a maximally-great being.  Yet if I were to ask you what the "greatest conceivable integer" is supposed to be, how could you possibly answer?  Because the very the moment you think you've discovered some viable candidate, I can immediately do better by simply taking your number and then adding one.  That's why any time you think you've identified all the properties of the greatest conceivable being, all I have to do is add on the condition that "plus my being can also beat up yours," and I've immediately found something "greater."

So obviously, the very idea of a "greatest conceivable anything" is completely incoherent and inapplicable from the start.  But that doesn't matter, because the only real purpose in all this "maximally great" talk is to try and sneak in the claim that "existence is greater than nonexistence" - as if the mere virtue of being incredibly awesome automatically implies physical presence in the real world.  Of course, Christians don't really say it that way, but instead dress it up as a sophisticated technical term called necessary existence - that literally, contained within the very idea of God Himself is the requirement that He must exist.  So rather than waste time dissecting a bunch of pointless premises, all we really have to do is rewrite the argument for what it is:
  1. God exists necessarily.
  2. Therefore God exists.
This really is all it boils down to.  God, by definition, is a maximally great being, and maximal greatness is implicitly defined by the property of necessary existence.  It's a textbook example of a classic logical fallacy called begging the question, or more simply, assuming the conclusion, yet guys with actual PhDs in philosophy will continually fail to recognize it to this very day.

Remember that this is supposed to be one of the greatest, knock-down arguments for God that the elites of Christian academia have ever come up with, yet it barely takes three little minutes to reveal how utterly ridiculous the whole thing is.  But it also goes to show the deliberate play on words that Christians will exercise in order to argue what they cannot show.  Sometimes they’ll even try to use the very "laws of logic" themselves as proof for God's existence, like in the transcendental argument for the existence of God [3]:
  1. There are some objective logical absolutes.
  2. We can have concepts of these logical absolutes.
  3. These logical absolutes are not physical (you can't find them within the natural world).
  4. These logical absolutes are therefore conceptual.
  5. Concepts require a mind.
  6. Since the logical absolutes are true everywhere they must exist within an infinite mind.
  7. That mind is God.
  8. God exists.
Note how once again we have an over-bloated philosophical word game designed to conclude God from an armchair.  Only this time, the argument flirts heavily with a philosophical concept known as Platonic realism - the idea that conceptual tools like logic and mathematics must necessarily possess a kind of intrinsic existence unto themselves, independent of space and time.  It’s an old idea with a certain seductive feel to it, but it is still dead wrong in every respect.

For example, consider a simple mathematical concept like the symmetric law of equality:

If a = b, then b = a.

Pretty simple, right?  How could this be anything other than absolutely true?  It’s almost as if it represents some fundamental, transcendent property of the universe itself, doesn’t it? 

Except it doesn’t.  When you really get down to it, the symmetric law of equality is nothing more than an axiomatic assertion - a self-imposed a rule for the manipulation of mathematical symbols based on the definition of equality.  And all this particular rule says is that the truth of an equality is independent of its order in expression.  Even more embarrassing for Christians is the fact that this is not exactly a deep, philosophical secret, either.  Any decent high-school level textbook on basic mathematics will openly introduce itself with the fundamental axioms of algebra - rules made up by human minds for the express purpose of consistent manipulation of mathematical expressions.

This is why we say that mathematics is “invented” and not “discovered.”  The only real “discovery” that occurs in mathematics is a rigorous implementation of the rules toward their natural conclusions.  Mathematical theories are really only "valid" just so long as they avoid contradictions.  If they just so happen to serve as useful descriptions of real, physical systems, then all the better, but Christian philosophers will actually try to argue that mathematical entities like numbers and circles possess a genuinely transcendent existence unto themselves.

It's important to realize that the entire field of deductive logic is no different.  Everything we claim to be “true” through logical deduction is only true by the standard of compliance with axioms.  For example, consider the linguistic structure of a typical syllogism:
  1. Worf is a Klingon.
  2. All tribbles hate Klingons.
  3. Therefore, all tribbles hate Worf.
This is an absolutely solid logical conclusion that follows perfectly and naturally from the premises.  But so what?  All we did was define some arbitrary set by the sole property of being labeled "Klingons," and then instantiated Worf as a random element within that set.  We then defined another arbitrary set by the property of being "things that tribbles hate," and then included Klingons as a subset within.  The conclusion then follows immediately and logically by applying a very simple axiom from rudimentary set theory: if A is a subset of B, and B is a subset of C, then A is a subset of C.  Viola!  All tribbles hate Worf, despite the notable handicap of not existing in the real world.  It’s just a game designed to substitute real words into a basic template.
  1. A is a subset of B.
  2. B is a subset of C.
  3. Therefore, A is a subset of C.
So while countless hack philosophers love to remind us that logical and mathematical truths are "pure and absolute," you’ll be hard pressed to find a single apologist who has any idea what the hell logic actually is or where mathematics actually come from.  The only reason they make this argument in the first place is because it sets the stage for declaring certain knowledge about things that exist outside of our sense experiences of the natural world (just like God).  They never stop to realize that chess and poker are grounded in the exact same fashion as algebra and geometry: you make up rules and watch what happens!  No one in their right mind would ever seriously try to argue that checkmates and full-houses actually exist outside of space and time, yet that’s exactly what Christians are doing when they make the same case for logic and mathematics.  The most central tenet of Platonic realism is a dead, useless idea, and has been known to be so for decades.

Remember that when we go around claiming a thing like "God" exists, we’re making a synthetic proposition.  That means the only way to measure its truth value is by making a prediction for some kind of distinct, sensory experience.  So to say that God exists without any possibility of empirical manifestation is ultimately just meaningless gibberish.  How can we know He exists when can’t even detect Him in the first place?  How do we verify His properties?  What would physically change if there actually turned out to be two Gods instead of one?  How the hell do we objectively differentiate between a genuine physical reality versus the wild imaginations of some deluded yahoo?  Because a God that can only be concluded through argument rather than demonstrated through sense experience is functionally equivalent to no God at all.

Notes/References
  1. I call this “The Parable of the Tribbles”
  2. Alvin Plantinga is one of the major proponents of this argument today.  WLC has pushed it many times as well.
  3. Matt Slick, President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics Research Ministry (CARM) is a big pusher of this argument.


1 comment:

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Be very sure the argument you rewrite is really the one you reduce to tribbles. Before writing it off after rewriting.