Friday, November 24, 2017

It Follows That Atheism Is False

I came across this article by Richard Bushey, called If Atheism Is True, It Follows That Atheism Is False.  On the chance that it might be a worthwhile argument, I thought I'd see what Bushey has to say, because I continue to hold open the possibility that I will someday find the elusive theistic argument that is convincing to someone who is not already convinced.  I must admit, though, that my expectations are low.  The most sophisticated theistic arguments by highly educated philosophers may be logically valid, and certainly seem to be unassailable in the eyes of other theists, but still fall short of the mark in changing the mind of someone who isn't already a theist.  The main reason for this is that they all seem to depend on premises (whether stated explicitly, or simply assumed) that cannot be accepted by a non-believer.  To accept premises of this type would be tantamount to conceding that God exists before the argument is made.

Bushey's argument, based on its title, appears to be an example of proof by contradiction.  With the goal of proving proposition T (theism is true), the basic form of the argument should be to first assume the opposite of that (proposition A - atheism is true), and then follow the implications of that assumption until it results in a contradiction.  In this way, proposition T would then be shown to be true.  This is a valid form of logical argument.  Let us now look more closely at how Bushey's argument proceeds.  Here is how he summarizes it:
(Premise one) if God does not exist, true propositions do not exist.
(Premise two) True propositions do exist.
(Conclusion) Therefore, God exists.
Bushey nominally follows the form of the argument by contradiction, but only in the shallowest manner.  We would expect this argument to start with the assumption that atheism is true and make valid logical steps from there until a contradiction is reached.  But that's not really what it does.  Bushey does not follow the logical implications that would be entailed if atheism were true, but instead asserts a theistic assumption from the very beginning of his argument.  Specifically, he assumes that there are no true propositions without God, and the entire argument is based on that theistic assumption.

At this point, I should state my own understanding of the terms 'proposition' and 'true', since Bushey fails to define them for the purposes of this argument.  The relevant definition of 'proposition' in Merriam-Webster is: an expression in language or signs of something that can be believed, doubted, or denied or is either true or false.  A proposition is a statement about some state of affairs that can be true or false.  'True' is defined as: being in accordance with the actual state of affairs.  Truth is correspondence to objective reality.  And these definitions are not based on any assumption of theism or atheism, and should be acceptable to anyone, but I'm not sure Bushey agrees with that.

With regard to the existence of propositions, Bushey holds the Platonic belief that propositions are objects that have an ontic existence apart from any mind.  That defies the definition of the word, which involves the expression of a statement.  In my own opinion, if there are no minds, there is nobody making any kind of statement which could then be judged to be true or false.  Propositions are statements about some state of affairs, as the definition of the word says.  Nevertheless, as long as there are people who can make such statements, I have no problem agreeing that propositions exist.

On the issue of truth, Bushey assumes by virtue of his theistic assumption that an atheist must be a "relativist".  And by that, he means truth is relative to the person or mind who beholds some proposition.  A proposition could be "true for you, but not for me".  Note that he does not provide any support at all for his first premise.  He simply assumes it.  The bulk of the discussion for his argument is devoted primarily to showing the absurdity of relativism.  The thrust of all this is to show that true propositions do exist, in support of his second premise.

Incidentally, his concept of relativism seems to be rather muddled.  In arguing that science would be undermined if all was relative, he uses the example of DNA evidence that doesn't change.  On this point, Bushey seems to be heading down a dangerous rabbit hole.  Objective reality is not relative to any mind.  However, the state of affairs can change over time, and evidence can change over time.  So there may indeed be cases where evidence must be evaluated in relation to a timeframe.  Bushey's point about relative truth is lost here because he makes the false assertion that the truth of a proposition cannot be relative to time.  Consider the proposition "The age of the sample is determined to be 100 years".  Clearly, the truth of that proposition is dependent on when it is asserted.  But that's not the same thing as relative truth in the sense that it was discussed above, and Bushey doesn't seem to recognize that.  This is indicative of his muddled thinking.

I'm not sure where Bushey gets this notion that relativism is entailed by a world without God.  The only real example I can point to is moral relativism, which holds that moral judgments are based on the opinion of the individual and his society, and there are no moral truths grounded in God.  It would be mistaken to extend this idea of relativity to factual truth or logical axioms, yet that appears to be exactly what Bushey has done.  He has built a caricature in his mind of the absurdity of a world without God.  But this notion that "all would be relative" is not based on any logical entailment of the simple assumption that atheism is true.

At any rate, given the caveat I duscussed about the ontological status of propositions, no reasonable atheist would disagree with Bushey's second premise.  There's no contradiction between atheism and the existence of true propositions.  The big problem with his argument is in his first premise, which is patently false.  If Bushey wants to state that there can be no truth without God, he needs to provide some supporting evidence or argument for that, and he has not done so.  He has provided no reason whatsoever for a reasonable person to think that his first premise is true.  It is nothing more than a blatantly theistic assumption.  And it is only this theistic assumption that leads to contradiction - not any genuine logical entailment of the simple assumption of a world without God.  So this argument turns out to be just another example of concluding what the theist assumes from the outset.  The thing that stands out about Bushey's argument is just how blatant his theistic assumption is.

But Bushey shouldn't be too ashamed of his utter failure to make a convincing argument for God.  After all, he's doing the same thing that the greatest theistic philosophers do, although many of them manage to hide their assumptions more effectively.  But they are all convinced that these arguments are airtight.  I sometimes wonder how they can be so blind to the theistic assumptions they make in their arguments.  I can only presume that theism is so deeply embedded in their thinking that they can't separate it from their logical reasoning.  Bushey can't imagine a world without God, so he just assumes that such a world must be absurd.  It never occurs to him that it might actually be a logically coherent world. 

This is the common thread of theistic arguments.  They can't separate their arguments from their theistic beliefs, and so their arguments are riddled with theistic assumptions.  I'm still waiting to hear that elusive theistic argument that is free of any such assumptions, and still logically valid.  But I doubt I ever will.


  1. Bushey's proposition has about as much logic and sense as the following:

    God is love
    Love is blind
    My uncle is blind
    Ergo my uncle is God.

    1. Right. And the funny thing about it is that they can easily see how bad an argument like that is - as long as it's not an argument for their own God.

    2. Wel, the idea is kinda Platonic and has been put better. Paul Tillich, eg, put it like this, citing St. Augustine....

      Augustine, after he had experienced all the implications of ancient skepticism, gave a classical answer to the problem of the two absolutes: they coincide in the nature of truth. Veritas is presupposed in ever philosophical argument; and veritas is God. You cannot deny truth as such because you could do it only in the name of truth, thus establishing truth. And if you establish truth you affirm God. “Where I have found the truth there I have found my God, the truth itself,” Augustine says. The question of the two Ultimates is solved in such a way that the religious Ultimate is presupposed in every philosophical question, including the question of God. God is the presupposition of the question of God. This is the ontological solution of the problem of the philosophy of religion. God can never be reached if he is the object of a question and not its basis.

      That's clearer. And "God" does seem a pretty good basis for a concept of "truth" .... this perhaps that's not the only one. Showing that "God" is that exclusive grounding while still maintaining all the essential features of your own concept of "God" - so the concept doesn't get blurred so much as to become vague, maybe even practically vacuous - that would be the trick...

    3. If Augustine said this, it is no less begging the question. Is that so difficult for a theist to understand?

    4. I actually don't think so.

      Well, in a sense.... Any time you talk about the veracity of the truth or the meaning of words, you're kinda in that position. But I think the idea is, IF human thought or language can capture a sufficient picture of such a concept as "God", or similarly a concept of "truth" to grasp it, or to even entertain it, then there MUST be a God, ie it's a type of ontological proof....

    5. Well, there you go. Straight to the point of my post.
      The theist finds it impossible to separate theistic belief from logic.

    6. Well, no, I actually think Augustine's argument is flawed. And, even if not, at best it could only show that "something" with sort of a Godlike presence must exist, and then only if you wanna maintain a really "high view" of "truth". But you don't have to posit such an absolute, high version of "truth" in most atheistic worldviews. Pragmatiic spins on truth, eg, will do. So the arg could only be convincing, possibly, to those wanting to incorporate some "higher" realisms - moral realism or maybe mathematical realism - into their atheism, and, even then, that ethereal "something" might not have to be personal like most concepts of "God": it could be more an impersonal "force" like the Platonic "eidos" or the Neoplatonic One,(although I'd argue invoking even those would constitute a STEP, at least, towards theism).

      Sim'ly with other versions of OA's, I see them as flawed too and have sometimes argued against them, just so you know....

      But I do disagree that Augustine is simply begging the question, yeh, def....

    7. the religious Ultimate is presupposed in every philosophical question ... God can never be reached if he is the object of a question and not its basis.
      - It would seem you believe there's a way of looking at these words and not think it's question begging. However, simple logic tells me it is. Obviously, I don't see it from your perspective, but if you presuppose the religious Ultimate, you are presupposing what you believe, and all arguments follow from that.

    8. It depends on what is meant by "the religious Ultimate", which is a bit more complicated than you assume....

      Tillich writes, in the same section of the same article, "it is not an argument, nor does it deal with the existence of God, although it has often been expressed in this form. It is the rational description of the relation of our mind to Being as such."

      Does that make sense to you?

    9. Or again, in tillich's words fron the same article

      Man is immediately aware of something unconditional, which is the prius of the separation and interaction of subject and object, theoretically as well as practically.

    10. Oops, sorry skep...

    11. It is the rational description of the relation of our mind to Being as such.

      "Being is what first appears in the intellect" (Quod primum cadit in intellectu). And this Being (which is not a being) is pure actuality and therefore divine.

      - That's all well and good. This is a seemingly sophisticated way of presupposing God without coming right out and saying it. You presuppose the ontological Being and equate that with God. But it all boils down to the same thing.

      Try to place yourself in the perspective of someone who doesn't presume all this stuff, but wants to hear a convincing reason why he should. What would you think?

    12. I suppose one question around Tillich is how compatible are his ideas with traditional Xian concepts of "God"? Joe's reading of them seems (to me) rather conservative....

      So the question is how much does "ontological Being" equate with any Xian's (or Islamic or Hindu or whatever's) spin on "God".

      For a lot of atheists, "the Prius of the interaction of subject and object" exists too, I think. But it's a purely structural thing, essentially mathematical in nature ...subpersonal rather than suprapersonal.

    13. how compatible are his ideas with traditional Xian concepts of "God"?
      - His ideas seem to be somewhat aligned with the Thomistic view of God as the non-personal source of being. However, this is not the traditional view, which has always seen God as anthropomorphic. Even Thomists want to have it both ways, but that is logically incoherent. Aside from philosophers like Aquinas, and Tillich, I think most people see God as a person. Which raises the question in my mind - what do those philosophers know that the rest of humanity doesn't?

      For a lot of atheists, "the Prius of the interaction of subject and object" exists too
      - Does it? To me, the word "prius" means something that comes before all else - something that is assumed. But if we have no reason to assume something, then we shouldn't assume it. It seems easier to just accept reality for what we can make of it, and not make assumptions like that.

    14. It's like Sheldon Cooper's "the universe is made of math" thing. As opposed to his girlfriend Amy's neuroscientific empiricism. Its played out in the classic episode of "Big Bang Theory" where they first meet.... Ie ithe age-old struggle between rationalism and empiricism, basically, the problem Kant tried to so-delicately balance his thoughts to resolve! ;-)

      & philosophers always think impersonally, of course..... But there's been a large impersonal strand in Xian thought for ages, due likely to its relations with Platonically-minded Greco/Roman culture in the early years.

    15. I would still be interested to know how a philosopher like Tillich presumes to know the the real essence of God, when most believers hadn't previously seen it the same way.

    16. Tillich was a minister/scholar who studied comparative religions and brought an existentialist sensibility to explaining the impetus behind the human religious impulse in an effort to "modernize" religious thought, mostly during the 50's and 60's. Like other theologians, he put a lot of his energy into that kind of work, which is not the typical case for your typical, simple churchgoing theist (or whatever) who works a day job in secular society.

      I dunno the extent that even that typical churchgoer thinks of God in a simple way as "a person" without understanding the image as analogical anyway... There's lots a scriptural passages to that effect... eg "God is not a man, that he should lie" (Numbers) ... & "God is a spirit" (John) .... &tc

      "God" has ALWAYS been a complicated idea!

    17. "God" has ALWAYS been a complicated idea!

      - As complicated or as simple as he may be conceived by the believer.

    18. Well, I meant complicated as part of the socio-symbolic order, i.e. as a political idea, i.e. "Whose side is God on?"