Greg Bahnsen vs. Michael Martin: The Debate That Never Was (1/2)

Greg Bahnsen vs. Michael Martin: The Debate That Never Was (1/2)
Greg L. Bahnsen was scheduled to debate the existence of God with Boston University Philosophy Professor, Michael Martin, at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenessee on October 26, 1994. However, Michael Martin dropped out of the debate less than two weeks before the scheduled debate, because he did not want the debate recorded by Covenant Tape Ministry and sold for profit. Nevertheless, Greg Bahnsen traveled to Memphis, Tennessee anyways to deliver a lecture, which he humorously entitled, The Debate That Never Was, refuting Michael Martin’s arguments against Christianity as expounded in his book, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. I have made a loose transcription of his opening remarks of his lecture below.

Well thank you very much and welcome to The Debate That Never Was. Sorry about that, I come to Memphis where sightings of Elvis is more common than sightings of my debate opponent apparently. So what do you do when you show up to a debate and there is only one side talking? I’m going to try to do my best tonight to expand on the remarks that I would have been using in my presentation in the debate, and then in the place of answering my opponent, Dr. Michael Martin, I will take his book, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification and try to cross-examine it. I think when someone takes a public and published position on an issue as momentous as its consequences as the existence or non-existence of God, it is expected that he will stand up and given an account of his reasoning. The truth regarding an omnipotent and personal Creator is an objective and public matter. Those who disagree over it, theists and atheists, should be willing and able to answer for the views for which they are commited. They should expect vigorous cross-examination to see if their views will withstand scrutiny. Thus as a Christian theist, I appreciate the opportunity to make a public case in favor of the truth of my faith. I regret that my opponent did not share these commitments or confidence in the public defensibility of his atheistic position, but more on that later.

You know what I would think would be a really interesting debate topic? I’d love to see two scholars come out here and debate on the existence of air. That would be downright fascinating. Just think of it, profound and articulate argumentation, cross-examination over whether air was real, all the while the two disputants breathing air in and out as they huff and puff their arguments at each other. This would be rather silly wouldn’t it? We are debating on the existence of air while breathing air as a precondition of our ability to debate. I think it would be a scholarly exercise for a person who offers erudite arguments against the existence of air to pursue that project as though air didn’t exist, when in fact contrary to his conclusions, he is using air all along. He would in that case, be a living contradiction. His argument would be possible only if his argument were wrong. He could argue against the existence of air all the while breathing air only if his argument proved to be wrong. I believe that that is something of an illustration of what is so wrong with the scholar trying to debate and show that God does not exist. He may argue this way and that way; he may enlist profound lines of erudite reasoning, but because of the validity of what is assumed and utilized in debate–the cogency of logic, language, objective knowledge and a number of other things– only make sense in the theistic worldview, the atheist debater is like the man who is continuing to breath all the while arguing that air does not exist. The existence of God is rationally necessary to rationality, science and ethics. In which case, the atheist must secretely take for granted the very thing he hopes to refute in order to engage in the debate at all. By participating in the debate, he has in principle, already lost the debate. By coming to the debate, Michael Martin would have lost, the debate itself presupposes things which are only intelligible within a Christian theistic worldview.

It is my conviction that atheism as a philosophy makes it impossible to achieve this goal of knowing anything. Human beings seek to understand themselves and the world in which they live to make their experience intelligible. With knowledge people gain control over their environment which makes their live more comfortable and safe. As a person becomes more intellectually more mature, he brings discipline to the area of study that interests him. He seeks greater precision, coherence and clarity in his thought. This scientific level of thinking to these various aspects of experience is never an end for human inquiry. Such questions will inevitably arise about the nature, extent and assumptions of science, especially about the relationship between the different sciences. This brings us to the consideration of philosophy. Philosophy is concerned with the presuppositions that arise is any and all fields of study. It seeks a world and lifeview in terms of which all of the elements of human experience can be unified into a coherent outlook. Philosophy has a critical function and a constructive function on the other. It seeks to cross-examine claims to the truth and create a unified picture of reality. Philosophy forces us to think about questions about the nature of reality, how we know what we know and how man ought to behave.

Philosophy asks:
1. What are the ultimate principles by which we answer philosophical question about reality, know and ethics?
-What are the principles that render experience intelligible? Are the principles logically consistent? Are the expicable in languge? Are they justifiable or arbitrary?
2. How should we understand nature?
-Is there an underlying unity through change and the way things appear in this world?
-Is there an objective order in this world? Is it a purposeful order?
3. What is man’s place and function in the world?
-Does man have dignity? What is the meaning of life? How do values fit into the realm of nature?
4. Is man’s mind self-sufficient?
-Is reason an instrument for painting objective knowledge about reality?
-Should man follow his observations or rational conceptions?
-How do senses and reasoning relate to each other?

Everyone utilizes some network of presuppositions regarding these matters. Philosophy forces a critical investigation of differing worldviews. Why is it that philosophers don’t come to agreement on these basic issues? There are profound differences between the worldviews of those who are disputing. Those worldviews will control with way in which factual evidence is accepted and interpreted, thus these disputes are not resolvable by simply observing the world. Conflicting presuppositions about reality, knowledge and ethics determine what a person takes to be problematic, what can be taken for granted about experience and what kind of method to follow. Adherence to different worldviews argue past each other and come to radically different conclusions. Any fruitful debate over the philosophical question of the existence of God will come down to an assessment of conflicting worldviews. In the end, the issue is whether the underlying philosophy regarding reality, knowledge and ethics is cogent, consistent and warranted. In particular, we must ask whether atheism or Christian theism can provide the preconditions for making human experience intelligible, or whether they leave science, ethics and logic to be arbitrary and/or incoherent. It is just because the atheist worldview of Michael Martin undermines rationality and morality that it is philosophically unacceptable. What we all take for granted in terms of objective knowledge, linguistic meaningfulness, logical standards, scientific procedures, human freedom and dignity and moral absolutes, because what we take for granted in terms of these things, would be utterly unintelligible within the context of the atheist worldview. These things do not comport with atheistic presuppositions. When the atheist tells us that there is no God and that all there is is matter and motion, it becomes impossible to give a rational account of objectivity, human freedom, moral absolutes, science, laws of logic etc. On the otherhand, the worldview of Christian theism is the philosophical perspective in which all of these things are intelligible. The atheist who attempts to use these things to refute Christianity, is assuming the very thing he is attempting to refute. Anti-theism presupposes theism. The proof of Christian theism is that without it, you cannot prove anything. The atheist worldview of Michael Martin does not comport with the concepts and principles of logic, science, language, human freedom etc. It cannot prove or give an account of knowing anything. Atheism fails as a worldview and profoundly refutes itself. The atheist cannot know anything whatsoever.

You will find that in response to their inability to give an account for human experience, they will dismiss the questions of worldviews and consider it un-important. The one thing the atheist knows for certain to begin with is that God is not going to be allowed to exist. If the atheist needs the existence of God to have a credible worldview, then it would be better to say that they don’t need worldviews. It is just because the atheist worldview cannot provide the preconditions for intelligiblity that the atheist worldview makes it impossible to argue for the atheist worldview. It’s not just that the atheist cannot prove that God does not exist, the atheist cannot account for anything. God has made his existence and character clear to all men, the evidence of God’s existence is pervasive and inescapable, because God’s existence is the precondition for the intelligiblity of man’s experience. Those who deny God render their thinking foolish.

I’d like to illustrate this point with some philosophers from the past. They were commited to a rigorously empirical theory of knowledge. The attempt to develop this kind of outlook has always proved unsuccessful and self-refuting.

He was born in 341BC and was a materialistic atomist in his metaphysic. He was a qualitative hedonist in his ethics. He held that philosophical method should begin with the plain facts of sense perception and shape all opinions in terms of sense perception augmented by the demand for non-contradiction. Following Democratus, there is no such thing as spiritual reality, for reality is composed on a infinite number of qualitatively identical and self-propelling atoms whose arrangement and motion explains the qualities of things and their behaviors. Everything that exists, even the gods and human soul, are explained materially and naturalistically.

1. The premise that all knowledge is perceptual in nature was not one that Epircurus knew on the basis of perception itself, thus his philosophy refutes itself. Everything is known by perception according to him. Does he know this on the basis of perception?
2. What Epicurus said about reality could not possibly have been known by means of perception. He believed in existence of imperceptible bits of matter, but he didn’t know this by perception. He believed these bits of matter to be infinite, but he doesn’t have infinite perception of everything. These infinite bits of matter were in ceaseless motion, but how could he know that? He would have to be watching them all the time. On the onehand, he wanted to be strictly empirical but that empiricism undermined what he wanted to say about reality.
3. His naturalistic atomistic theory of reality could not explain man as having free will, since man is nothing but the mechanical combinations of atoms falling through empty space. He offered a theory that there must have been a swerve in the fall of these atoms which account for man’s unpredictability which we call man’s will. For some reason one atoms swerved and caused a billiard ball effect and this is what brings human will. Even this deprives man of purposeful choice and leaves us with the conclusion that since what our brains devise is mechnically determined by the swerves of atoms. We have no basis for trusting our reasoning. If we cannot help but think what we do, why bother with philosophical investigation and debating?
4. How could Epicurus know that there was no after-life? Did he sense that?

David Hume
The Scottish skeptic was born in 1711. He had a strictly empirical method and anti-metaphysical prejudices. Hume advanced a strictly empirical criterion of meaning. He said, “When we entertain therefore, any suspicion that a philosophical term is employed without any meaning or idea (as is but too frequent), we need but enquire, from what impression is that supposed idea derived?” This kind of rigor would lead us to take into hand “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.“ A cautious philosophy will note the outcome of a consistent application of Hume’s empirical method from which Hume did not flinch that our common philosophical notions for all their use and importance prove to be false and nonsensical. We have no empirical impression of any underlying identity through change, either in the supposed objects of the external world or in our selves as the subject of these impressions. There is nothing but temporal succession of one sensation after another. There is no meaningful basis then for speaking of continuous objects of experience nor any meaningful basis for speaking of a continuous “I” who experiences those illusory objects. Hume said, “I am nothing more than a loose bundle of perceptions.” Even here, he had no warrant for speaking of these loose perceptions being “bundles” since there was no empirical impression of such a bundle. According to Hume, there could be no evidence which would justify our practical belief in an external world whatsoever. He said, “the mind as never anything present to it but the perceptions and cannot possibly reach any experience of that connection with objects. The supposition of that connection is therefore without any foundation in reasoning.” Hume means that are a all caught in an ego-centric predicament, because we never see any connection between our impressions in our mind and objects outside in the world, and therefore we can’t even say that there is a rational foundation for believing in an external world. Furthermore, argued Hume, the idea that there is a causal connection between any two events, despite the fact that it embodies the underlying belief of all empirical science (induction), is likewise without any rational foundation. While you may experience a succession of events, you never perceive a necessary or causal connection between the events that you experience. Hume said, “we can never observe any tie between them.” In this case, science can only report past observations to us and every event to us is a brand new event about which nothing can be rationally said by way of induction inference or future prediction. Hume’s strict empiricism landed into utter skepticism by his own admission. Hume’s philosophy led to skepticism about God, the external world, the existence of the self and all scientific reasoning. Even Hume’s attempt to explain why humans engage in inductive reasoning he said “by force of natural instinct or habit, they do this regardless of rational justification.” Even this attempt rests on the validity of inductive inference, now about human nature and the alleged workings of the human mind and habits. Furthermore, any attempt to mitigate Hume’s skepticism by turning toward a pragmatic interest in action and problem solving rather than theoretical demands of a philosophy, is not only a philosophical cop-out but itself rests upon the premise of experience and regularities in the behavior of nature and man, from which generalizations we are allowed to make successful plans of action. Even the pragmatic attempt to deal with Hume’s skepticism rests upon the very regularity of nature which Hume’s philosophy rules out as intellectual illegitimate. Hume’s anti-metaphysical empiricism proved to destroy objectivity, rationality and science.

Bertrand Russell
He was born in 1872 and died in 1970. He believed that logical rigor can entangle the puzzles of philosophy. He recommended that philosophy adopt the methods of science, believing that the methods of sciences can yield truths about things which, contrary to pragmatism, resides in correspondence to atomic facts of experience and not merely to the workability of our beliefs. He said that we should look with skepticism and doubt upon anything that is not susceptible to scientific analysis and proof. Russell hoped that his logical analysis could surmount the problems of David Hume and make it possible to validate inferences from our momentary sense data to the world of physics or the objects of common sense realism that are known by description. He thought he could objectively save scientific knowledge about an object of an external world. He said, “I wanted, on the one hand, to find out whether anything could be known…“ According to him, the business of philosophy was to give a general description of the whole universe, an inventory of the kinds of entities that make up the world in which we live. Russell says, “There is only one constant preoccupation: I have throughout been anxious to discover how much we can be said to know and with what degree of certainty or doubtfulness.” He was forced to conclude that most of what passes for knowledge is “open to reasonable doubt.” He wanted to know how knowledge is possible and how do we know that anything exists. He wanted to use logical analysis to answer these questions. He said, “every philosophical problem, when it is subjected to the necessary analysis and purification, is found either to be not really philosophical at all, or else …logical.” Ordinary language is so incoherent that is despises the logical form of what we are trying to say and badly misleads philosophers. Russell wanted to develop a purified language which will picture the world so that every sentence will correspond to a fact or group of facts in the world, and every word would correspond to an element of a fact, every word will refer to a thing, property or relation. The perfect language will then consist of the report of momentary sense experiences. Only that which can be translated into this perfect language is knowable. He thought that the mind, material objects, universals, particulars,laws of logic and time belong in the inventory of what is real. He said, “As instances I might mention: mind, matter, consciousness, knowledge, experience, causality, will, time. I believe all these notions to be inexact and approximate, essentially infected with vagueness, incapable of forming part of any exact science…” Throughout is career, Russell changed his mind many times about the sorts of things that belong in the inventory of the universe. Subsequently he dropped material objects and mind; particulars were replaced by qualities, and the only universal he had sympathy for was the universal called “similarity.” Basic to Russell’s thinking was a distinction between what we know by aquaintance (direct experience) and the things we know by description. In other words, there is a distinction between hard data (we know directly) and soft data (generalizations and descriptions built up from the hard data). Russell said, “I still hold that any proposition other than a tautology, if it is true, is true in virtue of a relation to a fact, and that facts in general are independent of experience.” He said that there is a possibility of sensing something and that is independent of what is actually sensed, and everything that is real is made up of those possibilities of perception.

The key problem is “can we infer from our direct experience from our sense data or the possibilities of sense data those entities of common sense that we describe in the world?” He said, “Can the existence of anything other than our own hard data be inferred from the existence of those data?” He also said, “if we know what can only be experienced and verified then most of what passes for knowledge is not knowledge at all.” Russell had to admit to failure at the end of his career. The problem was to show that inferences from hard data to soft data can be warranted and that empiricism is compatible to claims to knowledge of general truths about nature itself. This is the outcome of the atheist development of a worldview to attempt to show that knowledge is possible. He said, “Although our postulates can . . . be fitted into a framework which has what may be called an empiricist “flavor,” it remains undeniable that our knowledge of them, in so far as we do know them, cannot be based upon experience. . . In this sense, it must be admitted, empiricism as a theory of knowledge has proved inadequate, though less so than any other previous theory of knowledge.” Russell pointed out science is at war with itself. He said, “Thus, science is “at war with itself: when it most means to be objective, it finds itself plunged into subjectivity against its will. Naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false. Therefore naive realism, if true, is false; therefore it is false.” An objective knowledge of the external world that realism supposedly gives is destroyed by empiricism. Russell said, “In ontology, I start by accepting the truth of physics. . . . Philosophers may say: What justification have you for accepting the truth of physics? I reply: merely a common-sense basis. . . . I believe (though without good grounds) in the world of physics as well as in the world of psychology. . . . If we are to hold that we know anything of the external world, we must accept the canons of scientific knowledge. Whether . . . an individual decides to accept or reject these canons, is a purely personal affair, not susceptible to argument.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein
In Wittgenstein’s work, we see the culmination of Russell’s work to use logical analysis to solve philosophical problems. He held that since we can make assertions about the world if we examine the logic of our assertions, that will disclose the general features that the world must have for any assertion about it to be true. In other words, we can by logical analysis determine what can be said about the world. He said, “The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science – i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy – and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions.” Wittgenstein said, “ Most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical. Consequently we cannot give any answer to questions of this kind, but can only point out that they are nonsensical. Most of the propositions and questions of philosophers arise from our failure to understand the logic of our language.” This approach had a major difficulty. If Wittgenstein’s purification of language was going to be as rigorous as he proposed, then it would turn at out that very language that he used in the Tractatus would be meaningless. At the end of the Tractatus, he said, “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them — as steps * to climb out through them, on them, over them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)”

These are the very defects that would prevent Michael Martin from making a philosophically cogent case for atheism and would leave him with no place to stand to refute Christianity. In the comparison of worldviews, Martin’s atheism would be refuted by its own internal flaws, particularly its inability to provide the preconditions for the intelligibility of any human experience or reasoning. Nietzsche said, “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.” As long as we are still committed to universals, rules, standards and the possibility of communication, we are still holding onto God. Deconstructionism in our modern age is much closer to being sincere in following out atheism to its bitter end. There is no point to debate when there is no objective truth or meaning to communicate and defend. If Michael Martin’s atheistic presuppositions are correct, then man has no mental intellectual freedom to assess evidence and choose the truth. If Michael Martin’s atheistic presuppositions are correct, there would be no universals of logic or linguistic meaning. If his atheist presuppositions were correct, there is no rational basis for scientific inductive inference for the uniformity of nature. If his atheistic presuppositions are correct, there is no continuing identity in objects, no personal identity in time in the self, no basis for trusting memories, no similarity relation, no sets, numbers, concepts and laws. If atheistic presuppositions are correct, there is no such thing as an objective, moral obligation or even an obligation to be logical. He could not reason, communicate and prove his atheism. This is why I said at the beginning that Christian theism is proved from the impossibility of the contrary. It is only within the Christian worldview that the precondition of rationality in debate can be offered. Christian theism has a transcendental necessity. It alone provides a worldview that is the precondition for the intelligibility of man’s experience, his knowledge and conduct.


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