Over on the Atheist Experience Blog, Russell is having a debate with Stephen Feinstein and just posted the latest response here. He’s closed comments on the debate but I noticed something in that debate that I’ve faced in quite a few of my own that seems to run commonly through theist thought, especially presuppositionalist thought.
That has to do with axioms. An axiom, to use the definition Russell gave, is “a self-evident truth that requires no proof; a universally accepted principle or rule.” Russell lists one of his axioms as “reality exists” and one of Stephen’s as “God exists”. The problem is, at least in the case of Stephen’s axiom, that it cannot be an axiom at all because it is not a universally accepted principle or rule. Certainly, Russell doesn’t agree with it, thus it cannot stand as an uncontested, self-evident truth. An axiom must be agreed upon by all involved parties in a debate. You can’t declare an axiom to be “I win this debate”, I’m sure the other side is going to disagree.
So let’s look at Russell’s axiom for a moment. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Stephen disagrees with it. Certainly, there are people out there who do disagree, I’ve debated a lot of them myself. So we can pretend, again for the sake of argument, that Stephen is a solipsist, who thinks that everything he sees and experiences is an illusion generated by his own mind. Thus, Russell’s axiom is no longer an axiom, it is a point of contention. How would Russell argue that reality was actually real?
I can tell you how I’ve done it at least, although there are probably many other ways to go about it. I argued that, while we cannot be positive with any degree of absolute certainty that reality, as we experience it through our senses, is 100% real, certainly we all operate as though it were real. We don’t walk blindly across a busy street. We don’t leap off the top of tall buildings. We don’t repeatedly plunge sharp knives into our eyes. We deal with the world that we see as though it is as we see it. The most important thing to remember here is that even the solipsist does this. Even though they claim to know that the cars whizzing by on the street aren’t real, they avoid them. Even though they claim to know that there is no fall from the top of that non-existent building, they don’t take the leap. Even though they say that the knife is an illusion and your eye isn’t real, they refrain from stabbing themselves.
Why do they do this? Some I’ve debated claim that their “mind” will punish them for acting outside of the illusion, but that really makes no logical sense. They already claim to be aware that it’s all an illusion. Their brain is going to punish them for ignoring an illusion that they already know is an illusion? We know that’s not how it works. Let’s imagine there is a hologram of a fire, perfect in every way. If you know it is a hologram, you can put your hand in it all day long and never get burned. Your mind doesn’t punish you for knowing reality. However, if you are hypnotized into believing it is a real fire and put your hand into it, you can feel heat that isn’t really there and perhaps even get a skin reaction. The mind is a very powerful force, but it can’t punish you for things it knows aren’t real to begin with.
Now that we’ve established that we all act as though reality is real, how do we tell anything about reality? Certainly, each of us can test reality on our own with our senses, but what if our senses are wrong? We can compare our observations with others and if they are generally the same, we can be reasonably certain that our observations of reality are accurate. But wait, says the solipsist, how can you be sure you’re actually talking to someone else, or that the information you’re trading is accurate? Excuse me, Mr. Solipsist, but clearly you believe it or you wouldn’t bother having this conversation! If you cannot confidently exchange data with another person, then what’s the point in talking to anyone at all?
The biggest problem with solipsism is that it’s adherents act entirely contrary to it’s claims, showing they don’t really buy into it either.
Once all of this is done, it’s quite easy to show that we have good reason to agree that reality is real, both sides of the debate have accepted it through their actions. So can Feinstein do the same with God? I think not. I don’t think he’ll even try. He’s too busy assuming his own victory to be bothered by the fact that his axioms cannot be considered axioms and he has nothing whatsoever to trot out that can demonstrate them reasonable, rational or objectively true.