How an Atheist Doesn’t Quite Use Logic

The following post is a response to this article over at Debunking Christianity:

Hi, Robert. I read your post and see that you’ve sought what appear to be two main goals. First, a positive presentation of the atheistic account of logic, and second, a critique of the Christian theistic account of logic. There seem to be some major problems in both areas, though. That your own account of logic is guilty of at least a couple of logical fallacies, and that your critique suffers from either a simple misunderstanding of the Christian position, or a blatant use of the straw-man fallacy. But let’s start with your positive presentation:

Logic arises from material existence and is necessary for human understanding. Logic is ultimately derived from the Law of Identity, A=A. The nature of physical material existence is that every thing that exists has a specific set of characteristics. [*]

Logic (nor the uniformity of nature) transcend existence, for existence is all that exists. Consider the following syllogism.

a. Logic is necessary for human understanding.
b. If theism is true, then divine creation obtains.
c. If divine creation is true, then all in existence is contingent to God’s act of creation, and nothing in existence is necessary.
d. If theism is true, then logic cannot be necessary. (from b and c)
e. Theism is false. (from a and d)

Ok, so I read the entire post, but this seems to be your atheistic account for logic in its entirety. The entire rest of the post is devoted to arguing against the theistic account, not explaining your own account. Even this contains within it an argument against theism, but I’m trying to get everything in context.

For starters, you say that logic arises out of material existence, but you don’t really say how. How exactly does material existence lead to logic? You say that logic is derived from the law of identity, but there are a couple of questions I have about that. Isn’t the law of identity part of what we mean when we say “logic”? I understand from some of the comments that a lot of people are using that word to describe a lot of things, but since you are responding to the theist’s request for your account of logic, I’m assuming that you are using logic in the formal sense, which includes other laws besides identity, such as non-contradiction, modus ponens, modus tollens, etc.

So, are you saying that all of logic is derived from the law of identity? If you are, then you are saying that logic is derived from itself, since the law of identity is a law of logic. If you are not saying that the law of identity is contained in all of “logic”, then what sort of law is it?

Also, is it part of material existence, since you said that logic arises from material existence? If it is material, then where is it? Is the law of identity a material thing or a material process? If a thing, then how big is it? If a process, then how long does the law of identity take? If this sounds like nonsense, that’s because it is. Of course you don’t mean to say that the law of identity is material.

So what is it, then? Leaving questions of the existence of immaterial things aside for the moment, could you at least give an account of just how logic arises from material existence, since saying it’s derived from the law of identity does not begin to do that?

Later, in a point against theism, you do make this statement:

From my perspective, logic is an axiomatic fact of reality, and arises because of the fundamental nature of the material world.

I see no problem, per se, with saying that logic is axiomatic. Every system of understanding has to have its unsupported starting point, its “given”. That would explain why such a long article has so few words of positive defense for your own position. If logic is axiomatic in your system, there’s no way you could point to some justification for it, since that contradicts the nature of an axiom. That would also explain why, even though this is the second time you’ve written of “arising” from the “material world”, you still haven’t given any sort of account of how it does so.

Next you employ a syllogism that supposedly gives an argument for why logic doesn’t transcend existence. At the point of introduction, you’ve fallen prey to one of two fallacies. Either you’ve equivocated, or you’ve made a circular argument. Let me show you exactly how. You’ve replaced “material existence” with “existence”. It is your contention, no doubt, that logic does not transcend material existence, but if you were to make that statement, you’d be guilty of a circular argument, because you’d be assuming the theistic position–that logic does transcend material existence–false in order to prove it’s falsehood. Or perhaps the switch in terminology is deliberate. If so, then you are guilty of equivocation. I realize that you believe that material existence is identical with all of existence, but you’re statement “existence is all that exists,” while agreed upon by theists, carries a different meaning to theists than to you. You have to stick to one definition.

We haven’t even gotten to the syllogism. This is the point in your article where you shift your focus from an account of atheistic logic to an attack on theistic logic. You’re correct in noting that theists would attack premise c, but not for the grounds they’d attack it on. The problem with c is that it’s false. It is false because it is self-refuting. If divine creation is true, then created existence is not all of existence. It has never been the Christian position that “all existence” in the sense you need to use it here, is contingent on God, since God’s existence is not contingent. Also, if God exists, which is a necessary condition of divine creation, then something is necessary. It’s generally a bad idea to include a self-refuting premise in your arguments.

This section is followed by a litany of arguments against the theistic account of logic. Let’s look at those.

Theists often assert that non-believers borrow logic from the Christian worldview. This is absolutely irrelevant to the issue at hand, for it does not address the fact that logic becomes subjective if a consciousness creates it. The theist is only specifying the nature of that subjectivity. By so doing he is in fact supporting the argument above. Asserting logic is part of God’s nature does not change the fact that by so doing is to declare it originates from a consciousness, not from objective existence – which is the very definition of subjective. (This is an example of the subject-object reversal. Reality is objective. The imagination is subjective. By claiming logic is subjective, the theist reverses the epistemic priority of objective reality over subjective imagination.)

Aside from the fact that this argument doesn’t address borrowing logic from the Christian worldview or giving an account for logic in the atheistic worldview, this argument is a perfect example of a straw-man or misrepresentation of Christian belief on three counts: (1) Being created by consciousness does not make something subjective. It merely means that something is deliberately created, as opposed to coming about accidentally or without guidance. Every man-made thing you see every day fits that description, and none of it is subjective. (2) In point of fact, logic, according to the transcendental argument, is part of the nature of God, making it uncreated, just as omnipotence and omniscience are uncreated. This makes “created by consciousness” talk completely irrelevant. (3) Finally, the Christian position is that God’s attributes are objectively so. It is not that God “made up” logic. It is that logic is inherent to God in the same way that “running on diesel” is inherent to a diesel engine.

Next, we have the charge that Christians “have absolutely no grounds for discussing the specifics of God’s nature.” We are given two reasons.

First, by acceptance of a fantasy God as Sovereign and Creator, the believer cannot assume anything about its properties any more than we can posit “complete entropy” of a system and then try to define physical properties thereof. The theist cannot refute the possibility that a fantasy of an infinite god or a malevolent spirit being is deluding her into believing the statement “God’s nature is logical. Under theism a person can no longer refute arguments based on extreme skepticism. The theist can only refute the idea of an invisible magic entity manipulating their mind, or being the victim of mental illness if her worldview entails self-contained existence.

Now, ignoring the use of the poisoning-the-well fallacy by use of a term like “fantasy”, this entire point is either question-begging or irrelevant. It is the theists position that what we know of God is what has been revealed to us. (Now I know this will lead to questions on the veracity of the Bible and such, and those questions are good. But I think they’re best addressed on another thread. Suffice it to say, that if there is a God and if He has revealed knowledge about Himself, then it is not at all inconsistent with theism to appeal to revealed knowledge.) If you want to deny the appropriateness of such sources for the theist then you’ll have to do more than make a bald, unfounded assertion that no one can have such knowledge. You’re statements about extreme skepticism are irrelevant, because no one can, with absolute certainty, refute such postulations. That puts us both in the same boat on those questions. Theism doesn’t need to refute these speculations any more or less than you do.

Second, to discuss what she thinks is God’s nature, she must presume to have knowledge of that nature. Knowledge, however, is rooted in reality and is held in conceptual form.

This statement is somewhat incoherent. Why is it that discussion of what one “thinks” requires “knowledge”? Your second statement I agree with completely. I just disagree with you on what constitutes “reality”.

Your Peikoff quote and subsequent paragraph about sensory experience are interesting, and, I assume, contain your view of how we know things and what counts as knowledge. In their entirety, however, they simply an assertion of belief in empiricism. Namely, you only count as knowable that which can be ascertained by the senses, and that which can be derived by logic from whatever the senses discover. You can believe in empiricism if you like, but you have two difficulties to overcome in that case. (1) Christians aren’t empiricists, so you must give some evidence available to the Christian that empiricism is true. (2) Much more difficult, you must give an account of why empiricism isn’t self-refuting in your case, whereas it was in the case of the early twentieth century philosophers who invented it. They could never overcome the fact that, if you only allow for knowledge that is ultimately derived from the senses, you can never know that empiricism is true. You can never know that only that knowledge is allowed, because it is not derived from some sensory experience. Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett make this same mistake. It seems they haven’t read of the logical positivists. I have a full article you could read as a primer on the subject here.

You finish your point with this statement:

Since theism’s fantasy of a God cannot be detected by any means of sensory experience or instrumentation, it is impossible for any religious mystic to have perceptual information that can be used as isolated distinct perceptual units that can be the basis of a concept of God. Thus theism’s claim to have knowledge of the nature of God is patently false.

No theist I know of would acknowledge the consequence you state here. It is the Christian position that people throughout history have had sensory experience of God. Many heard God speak. Moses saw God. Jacob wrestled with God. It is not that God cannot be sensed with the five senses, only that God decides when he will make himself hearable, or seeable. I understand that this does not constitute evidence for you as an empiricist, but it does count on the Christian worldview, which means that, on that worldview, your statement here is patently false.

The theistic point that “logic is rooted in the nature of God” is a complete ad hoc rationalization: nothing about the notion of a god indicates that it must be necessarily logical or rational. Humans are capable of being both logical and illogical, it is clearly impossible for a more powerful being to not be able to do such a simple thing as make an illogical proposition.

Now, I thought you were trying to refute theists. Which theistic notion of God doesn’t include rationality? God is all-wise. Christian theists have always thought so. The only evidence you’ve attempted to give for why the theist’s position is ad hoc is to simply contradict the theist’s position. That is circular reasoning at its worst. And saying that God should be able to be illogical because He’s “powerful” is straw-man fallacy at its worst. If you want to refute theism, you actually have to aim your critiques at theism, not some very unusual belief system that says that logic is part of the nature of God while also saying that it is not part of the notion of God. Your argument is against them, though I’m not sure you’ve met anyone like that. Also, your argument is against another unusual belief system that ostensibly says that God is all-wise and by nature incapable of making mistakes, and yet is able to be illogical. If all you mean by “make an illogical proposition” is “utter an illogical sentence”, then God does that all the time when mocking idols and such. If, however, you mean that God must be “powerful” enough to actually be illogical, then you’re just contradicting theism, not refuting it.

Even if it was the case that a God actually existed and its nature was logical, there would be no necessary (in the sense of system K modal logic meaning it is not possibly false) relation between God’s inherent properties and its creation. A burden of proof is upon the God believers to prove their assertion that it necessarily is the case that a relation between what they imagine as God and objective reality obtains such that the basal attributes of their God transfer to objective reality by virtue of a creative action. Without such evidence sufficient to establish the thing as true, the assertion that “logic is rooted in the nature of God” cannot have any weight. The believers would need to prove that powerful beings are restricted in their creations to transferring their basal attributes to that which is created. Were the theist successful in such an endeavor, the religious house of cards would fall to the old rejoinder that a perfect creator cannot create an imperfect creation.

Here, as before, your language creates a false dichotomy between “what they imagine as God” and “objective reality”. This is a minor point, but you can’t successfully demonstrate an inconsistency in a worldview or belief if you can’t even accurately describe it. As stated before, it is not the theist’s position that every attribute of God “necessarily” transfers to creation. Creation is a free act; not all of Gods attributes are necessarily found in what has been created. Whether logic itself necessarily transfers is an interesting question, about which I don’t currently have an opinion. That logic actually transfers I do believe, but that doesn’t require anything more than that the logical laws actually hold and describe the relations they purport to describe.

It is impossible to make sense of the proposition that “logic is part of God’s nature”. That this is so can be observed by taking note of the Transcendent Argument for God. TAG proposes that “logic is both dependent on God and necessary. ….. If logic is dependent on God it must be contingent. If logic is contingent then it is not a necessary part of human understanding. But logic is a necessary part of human understanding. Thus logic cannot be dependent on God since there is nothing inconsistent about denying the existence of God but there is in denying the principles of logic.” – (Michael Martin: “Butler’s Defense of TAG and Critique of Tang” – Logic cannot both be an intrinsic part of God’s actions and created by God.

Robert, if you want to make a credible case, you probably shouldn’t cite an atheist in order to define the transcendental argument, or any Christian view for that matter. Go to the source, then try to refute that source. Straw-man argumentation robs your credibility and makes your position look weak. Martin’s statement that TAG proposes that logic is both dependent on God and necessary is ambiguous at best. He’s fallen prey, much like you did early in your post, to a dilemma where he’s guilty of one of two fallacies. You’ve been incorrectly saying thus far that theists who say that logic is rooted in God’s nature also say that it is created. Whether that’s what Martin means is unclear by your citation, though it seems to be what you think by your closing comment. If that is indeed what he means, then he has committed the straw-man fallacy, attributing to his opponents a weaker view they don’t hold and then refuting that view.

However, if all Martin means is that logic is dependent in the sense that it is one of His attributes, then he’s simply expressed a non sequitur. One could say, I guess, that one’s attributes are in some way dependent on oneself, at least for their expression, and that one’s essential attributes are those that one could not fail to have. Even those attributes would be dependent in this sense. Since the Theist believes that logic is one of the attributes of God that He could not fail to possess, it also follows that it is every bit as necessary as He is. If God is a necessary being, and logic is an essential attribute of God, then logic necessarily exists. So, Martin’s statement that something dependent must also be contingent either (a) speaks of creation and thus does not apply to logic at all, or (b) speaks of attributes, and is false with respect to the essential attributes of a necessary being.

Theism’s assertions are self-defeating. If logic existed first as a property of God, then it is a non-material principle, and divine causation is not necessary for its transference at all. All it would prove, at best, is that a non-material principle is involved, but there is a definite lack of specificity in theism’s claim. How is it that some properties of God’s nature are transferred to reality, but others are not? Theism’s claim that “our belief in logic is rooted in the nature of God and evidenced in creation itself” implies that it is logically necessary for one property of the nature of the alleged God to transfer to reality but that other predicated properties do not transfer. Why is that? The theist bears a burden of proof here to show why their case for logic transference does not also entail that their God’s alleged goodness, intelligence, order, morality, self-knowledge, sovereignty, power, justice, etc are also transferred by the creative act. In no sense is the burden of proof fulfilled by simply asserting the contrary position as a mystery.

On the Christian view, some of God’s attributes are communicable, which means that they, at least in part, are expressed in creation. Some are incommunicable, applying to God alone. As far as I know, the attributes that do transfer and the ones that don’t are ascertained based on what we see in the world and what God has revealed of Himself. In fact, I (and I believe most theologians) would say that every attribute on your list transfers to creation, just not superlatively as it applies to God. I would say that logic transfers in the same way. No one is perfectly logical all the time, just as no one is perfectly good all the time. Objective logic and goodness still exist. Those attributes that don’t transfer at all are those that simply cannot be had by created, finite, temporal things, such as being eternal, or transcending time; being unchangeable, which requires eternality, since moving through time is a sort of change in itself; and aseity, the attribute of being self-existent, an attribute that no created thing could possibly have.

Theism presumes that it makes sense to speak of logic as a non-material entity, which indicates a commitment to idealism. From my perspective, logic is an axiomatic fact of reality, and arises because of the fundamental nature of the material world. It makes no sense to speak of logic dissociated from the material world, any more than it makes sense to speak of immaterial consciousness.

Okay, that is your perspective as you say. I’m not sure I’d agree that the theistic account of logic requires a commitment to idealism, but maybe it does. Either way, you haven’t actually argued against idealism here, only given your opinion, so as there is no argument to address, I move on.

The rest of your post, which, I think, is a footnote to an earlier point, is a very interesting trek through what Stephen Hawking and Quentin Smith believe about the big bang. I’m no physicist, so I won’t attempt to argue with the physics. I would only take issue with your concluding point:

(This also means that no ordering was applied to existence from outside of existence in the time after the Big Bang. But such ordering is required for the theist to assert the anthropic coincidences are evidence of an intelligent creator/designer. Classic hot big bang cosmology was, therefore, the death knell for theism.)

The theistic position does not require that there were actual laws ordering the universe at the big bang. It only says that God was in control of things. That control need not have taken the form of laws. When I draw a picture, I do not apply laws to the pencil and paper. I manipulate them directly. The Christian position is that God created directly. Don’t be confused here. I’m not actually trying to convince you with this that God is the creator. I’m just trying to correct your written misperceptions about Christianity and theism.

1 thought on “How an Atheist Doesn’t Quite Use Logic”

Comments are closed.