The debate between Objectivist philosopher, Andrew Bernstein, and Christian Apologist, Dinesh D’Souza, which was hosted by The Objective Standard and The University of Texas Objectivism Society, held at the University of Texas in Austin on February 8th, was indeed a historical event. It was the first (and hopefully not the last) time that a major intellectual in Objectivism went toe-to-toe with an influential figure in Christianity. As the first of what is hopefully to be many such encounters, this event proved to unearth some important issues which must be addressed by both sides if either wishes to move forward in “being good for mankind”.
The Wrong Topic
That was the topic of the debate: “Christianity, Good or Bad for Mankind?” The discerning reader will notice right off the bat that such a topic is logically premature. You cannot have a reasonable debate over the morality of a worldview without first establishing the reality of that worldview. In other words, you cannot legitimately discuss whether Christianity is good without first discussing whether it is true. Morality comes from reality – and never the other way around. If Christianity is true, it will be good – and if it is false, it will be bad. As I’ve said before, “If Christianity is false, then it should be wiped from the face of the earth. If it is true, then it should be spread over the face of the earth. Such is the nature of ideas. They are either false and evil or true and glorious. There is no in-between.”
It is no wonder, then, that while the two debaters did cite some historical and modern statistics about relatively “good” or “bad” things which have been associated with Christianity, they spent a larger amount of time debating the truthfulness or rationality of Christianity. Such a topic would have been more appropriate for the debate to begin with, but in spite of the poorly chosen topic, they did get around – rather quickly – to the more fundamental issues. And it is those fundamental issues which I wish to cover in this review, because those are the essential issues which must be properly grasped by both sides if either wishes to be any good for mankind.
The Right Topic
In his opening statement, Dr. Bernstein touched on one of the most (if not the most) essential issues of the entire debate; and in doing so, issued a solemn indictment against – and warning to – modern Christianity. The issue, though not explicitly named by him at the time, was that of epistemology (truth criteria). The indictment: modern Christianity has no objective truth criteria. The warning: in such a void, anything goes. To the extent that modern Christians base their Christianity (or anything else for that matter) in “faith” rather than reason, they declare that there are no objective standards for determining truth. And if there are no objective standards for truth, there can be no objective standards for morality. And if there are no objective standards for morality, then anything goes. Such is the inevitable conclusion of faith-based “knowledge”.
Bernstein, therefore, is absolutely correct when he says that such conceptions of Christianity “set the stage” for all kinds of evil in the Twentieth Century, by promoting the irrationality of subjectivism – of holding to ideas, not by reason, but by “faith”; not because of the ideas’ connections to reality, but because of one’s mere desire for the ideas to be true. A worldview (whether Christian or other) which holds anything other than reason as the standard for belief, is a worldview begging to be consumed by irrationality; by corruption; by evil. When there is no objective (i.e. reasonable) standard for truth, there is no reason to condone one action, or to condemn another. A priest may say he’s been called by God to donate to a charity, or he may say that he’s been called by God to slaughter children. If “faith” is the only connection to God (i.e. the only way to know anything about Him), then the priest’s “faith” in the calling to charity, and his “faith” in the calling to homicide are equally unquestionable to the outside observer. You may claim to know that God is against such homicide, but if that claim is founded in nothing but your own personal “faith” (and faith is necessarily a personal – subjective – experience), then it’s your “faith” against his. And he’s a priest. You lose. There cannot be objective morality without objective epistemology – i.e. without objective truth criteria.
As epistemology goes, so goes morality. And that is the fundamental issue in this debate – and the fundamental issue which both Christians and Objectivists must focus on. Bernstein did a fantastic job pointing this out and thus challenging the audience to examine the errors in modern Christian epistemology, but he shouldn’t have stopped there. Bernstein, and Objectivists in general, would do well to check their own epistemological premises to ensure that they, themselves, are not likewise setting a similar stage for all kinds of irrationality and evil in future generations – I would argue that they are. More on that later, though. First, let us examine D’Souza’s presentation of his epistemology, identify the errors, and correct them accordingly.
D’Souza’s (and the Modern Christian’s) Blunders
We get an early glimpse of D’Souza’s epistemology in his opening statement when he describes faith as that which “goes where reason cannot”. To illustrate, he talks about the speed of light. We can measure the speed of light here and now, but we cannot measure the speed of light in the past or in distant galaxies. Therefore, the assumption that the speed of light is the same at all times and at all places cannot be based in reason. If we are going to believe that, D’Souza insists, we must believe it “by faith”. Notice quickly that D’Souza equates “reason” here with empirical observation or measurement. Whenever D’Souza speaks of reason, he means that which is empirically verified – and when he speaks of that which is not empirically verified, he calls it “faith”. Keep that in mind – it will be essential to understanding his epistemology.
Now, skip ahead to his second speaking session where he clarifies for us what he considers to be the distinction between knowledge and belief. “Knowledge” he says, “means you know. Belief means you don’t know, but you believe”. While these descriptions are circular on paper, their intended meaning is obvious in the context in which D’Souza brings them up. What he means is that knowledge is strictly that which can or has been empirically verified, and belief is in regard to everything which cannot be empirically verified. So, empirical observation (“reason” for D’Souza) gives us knowledge. Non-empirical ideas (“faith” for D’Souza) give us beliefs. The conclusion, therefore, is that no one can know anything about that which is not empirically verified. That is why D’Souza astonishingly says the following:
“Now we are in a university setting so we can stop talking nonsense, and ask the question ‘do we know for a fact that God exists or doesn’t exist on the basis of reason?’ I would concede we do not know…I call myself a believer because I am not a knower… I think we have to admit, if we are honest, that we have no answers to the most fundamental questions of existence.”
And now, we have come to the atrocious end of D’Souza’s epistemology. “To claim to know for a fact that God exists”, D’Souza (the theist!) declares, “is nonsense” – the type of nonsense which is not fit for a university setting. The rest of the quote is even worse, but focus in on the implications of that one part for a moment. D’Souza, here, condemns all theists (and therefore all Christians) to irrationality and nonsense – to the extent that they actually believe that what they believe is true. If a theist, like myself, claims to know for a fact that God exists (and I do), he is condemned by D’Souza as nonsensical – because knowledge only pertains to the empirically verified, and you can’t empirically verify God; which means that you can’t know that God exists; which means that if you believe that God exists, it must be apart from reason; which means that belief in God is no more significant than belief in a fairy-tale. Revealingly, D’Souza later confirms the fairy-tale nature of his beliefs when he attempts to justify Christianity to the audience, not on the grounds of its basis in reality, or its objective big-picture context good for Mankind, but on the grounds of the subjective, personal benefits which he derives from believing that it is true.
So, D’Souza, when taking his epistemology seriously, reduces Christianity to a “feel-good fairytale” or a moralistic fable – at best. But he doesn’t stop there. He not only denies the possibility of knowledge regarding the existence of God, but he also denies (as his epistemology requires him to) the possibility of knowledge regarding “most fundamental questions of existence” – which is no surprise. After all, the fundamental questions of existence cannot be empirically verified. But while we’re speaking of that which can’t be empirically verified, there’s one assumption which seems to have slipped through the cracks – the very assumption upon which his epistemology rests.
D’Souza’s epistemology states, in effect, that “You cannot know that an idea is true if that idea cannot be empirically verified”. But, that is an idea. It is an idea which D’Souza assumes to be true. And it is an idea which cannot be empirically verified. You cannot empirically observe “all truth being empirically observable”. This is the fundamental problem of empiricism. D’Souza adopted empiricism, which denies knowledge regarding the non-empirical, and then he simply said “that’s ok, because we’ve got faith for everything else”. Apparently he missed the memo about empiricism being inherently self-contradictory, and therefore fundamentally destructive as an epistemology.
Bernstein’s (and the Objectivist’s) Blunders
But D’Souza isn’t the only one who seems to have missed the memo. Bernstein dabbles in his own form of empiricism – the Objectivist form of it. No, Bernstein doesn’t go as far as D’Souza, claiming that knowledge only pertains to the empirically verified – Rand taught him better than that. Instead, he would likely claim – along with other Objectivist intellectuals – that all knowledge is based in the empirically verified (in perception). How does this resemble the empiricism of D’Souza? Well, before we dive into the similarities, it will be helpful to first note the important differences.
To be fair, Bernstein’s Objectivist empiricism is far less immediately destructive than D’Souza’s faith-based one. Whereas D’Souza outright denies the possibility of any knowledge outside of the empirical, Bernstein – as a subscriber to Objectivist epistemology – would at least allow some. He would cite the process of abstraction as that which allows some knowledge of the non-empirical: that we can abstract certain qualities from perception in order to discover universal laws which apply to that which has not been perceived. The most fundamental of these is logic: A is A; Contradictions don’t and can’t exist. This is a principle which Bernstein holds as a universal – a law which applies to everything – rather than strictly pertaining to the empirically observed. So, unlike D’Souza, Bernstein does allow knowledge of the non-empirical, but he is very selective about that which he allows and that which he does not. This is common among Objectivists, and it is due to a flaw in their epistemology to be explored a little later. But first, let’s look at some examples of Bernstein’s epistemological inconsistency as we analyze his major arguments against the existence of God.
There are three main arguments which Bernstein submits against theism. The first is on sound epistemological ground – it rightly allows and employs knowledge regarding the non-empirical – while the other two effectively revert back to D’Souza’s fundamental epistemology: that knowledge of the non-empirical in “nonsense”. Bernstein’s first argument against the existence of God is based in what he believes to be a violation of axiomatic truths on the part of theists. He states that existence exists; that existence is not, and cannot, ultimately be a product of consciousness; that existence holds a logical primacy over consciousness, because to be conscious means to be conscious of something – something which exists. In all of this he is absolutely correct. And notice, in this argument, that he is (rightly) claiming knowledge of the non-empirical: that these axiomatic truths apply to everything – even things which have not been perceived; which means that they must also apply to God. His epistemology and reasoning are absolutely accurate here. So what’s the problem? Recall his application of this reasoning to theism: God, he states, is a consciousness which precedes existence; a consciousness which could not be conscious of anything because nothing existed for it to be conscious of. God is a consciousness which is conscious of nothing but its own consciousness. This is plainly a contradiction, and therefore such a God could not exist. Case closed. Right? Wrong. There’s a flaw in this argument, but it isn’t a flaw in his epistemology; in his reasoning – it’s a flaw in his conception of theism.
Theism claims that God exists – and that He is conscious. Note the difference. God is not a “consciousness”. He is an existent which is conscious. Conscious of what? Of His own existence. God exists, and He is conscious of His own existence. This argument from Bernstein (and Objectivists in general) is nothing more than a straw-man which attempts to redefine the metaphysical nature of God into an inherent contradiction, and then impose that contradiction onto the position of the theist. It’s disappointing too, because as stated above, this is his only argument on sound epistemological ground. The other two fall very quickly because they share the same empiricism as that of D’Souza.
Bernstein’s last two arguments are very simple in nature. One states that the idea of consciousness without a body has no basis in evidence; that all of our knowledge of consciousness involves beings with physical bodies – and since God does not have a physical body, the idea that He could be conscious is completely unfounded. The other states that creation ex nihilo (from nothing) likewise has no basis in evidence; that all of our knowledge of creation involves a re-fashioning of already existent material – and therefore the idea of God creating everything out of nothing is also completely unfounded. Notice the similar reasoning between these two arguments. When boiled down to their essence, they both basically say “We’ve never experienced that, so it can’t be true”. This is where Bernstein’s Objectivist empiricism enters the picture. In his first argument, Bernstein correctly reasons that we can have certain knowledge about that which we have not experienced (via logical or axiomatic reasoning), but here in these two arguments, he assumes that something which is outside of our realm of experience is necessarily impossible. This is a selective sort of empiricism which the Objectivist only applies as it suits him.
Ironically, D’Souza, the avowed empiricist, calls Bernstein out on his form of empiricism here by noting that according to Bernstein’s reasoning, we “knew” with certainty in the 5th Century B.C. that no other stars or planets existed which could not be seen with the naked eye. This is a great demonstration of the problem in Bernstein’s Objectivist empiricism – unfortunately D’Souza’s faith-based empiricism is no better. Neither can legitimately and consistently justify knowledge of the non-empirical – of those facts which must be discovered through the use of logic. D’Souza reduces the application of logic to “faith” and consequently swings the door wide open for the logical and illogical at the same time – without any objective means of differentiating between the two. Bernstein (and Objectivists in general) allows the use of logic for non-empirical knowledge out of one side of his mouth when it suits him, but forbids it out of the other when it doesn’t – with no objective means of differentiating between when the use of logic is appropriate and when it is not.
To be fair, Bernstein, as an Objectivist, would likely cite some vague generalities about the use of logic being connected to, or based in, perception – but nowhere in Objectivist epistemology will you find clearly stated, objective clarification on what this “connection to perception” means, and does not mean; nowhere will you find clearly stated and objective rules regarding the use of logic which do not automatically contradict themselves – thus rendering the line between “proper” and “improper” use of logic completely arbitrary and subjective. Just as D’Souza’s form of empiricism relegates non-empirical truth to subjective whim via faith, Bernstein’s empiricism relegates non-empirical truth to subjective whim via inconsistent and un-stated criteria. Neither can provide an objective foundation for non-empirical truth.
Such is the fundamental problem which must be addressed, and remedied, by both parties: Christian and Objectivist alike. Both desperately need to recover a proper and rational epistemology – an epistemology which neither reduces logic to faith, nor vaguely obscures the necessary distinctions between its proper and improper applications. Both need to retrace their epistemological premises, and follow those premises to their logical conclusions in order to see the irrationality of them. Then, both need to discover and adopt objective, rational, epistemological foundations upon which to build an objective and rational worldview – which takes the entire world (all of reality) into account. Such epistemological foundations are possible – and they do demand the existence of God, but not just any God. They demand a God much like the one described in “Bernstein’s Wager.”
If God exists, Bernstein argues, He would value rationality, since He created man as a rational being. And since God would value rationality, only those who were completely rational would receive His blessing and be brought into Heaven. This is truer than Bernstein could imagine. Only, more than simply valuing rationality because of creating rational beings, God values rationality because He is supremely rational, Himself. He is not capable of irrationality, and therefore He has the highest standards of rationality for man. Now, if this supremely rational God exists, how does Bernstein imagine He would feel about men who claimed to be rational, while employing contradictory and evasive epistemologies? How would He feel about metaphysical moochers who assume His eternal attributes (logic, good, reason) when it suits them, but deny them when they do not? How would this supremely rational God feel about men who claimed to value truth regarding every other aspect of reality, but not regarding His existence and nature – which are foundational to the rest of reality? Yes, God is supremely rational and expects nothing less than supreme and consistent rationality from man. Therefore evasive reasoning, inconsistent epistemologies, subjective emphases and insincere claims about valuing the truth will not cut it in His court.
And that is what ultimately needs to be taken into account regarding what is good for Mankind. The Objectivist is right that what is rational will ultimately be good for Mankind – but the selective rationality of Objectivism will not cut it. What man needs (because of his nature and because of the nature of the God who created him) is absolute, consistent, objective, all-encompassing, relentless, and passionate rationality. D’Souza’s got the God-part (partially) right, but the importance and nature of reason atrociously wrong. Bernstein’s got the reason-part (partially) right, but the existence and nature of God atrociously wrong. Therefore, neither advocates a worldview which is actually and consistently good for Mankind. There needs to be a rational synthesis of the two, which integrates the good of each, while rejecting the irrationality of each; which embraces the supposed dedication to reason by Objectivists, while rejecting the subjective restrictions they place on reason; which embraces the rational theism of Christianity, while rejecting the modern irrationality of “faith-based” reasoning. It is such a synthesis which the reader will find progressively presented by The Christian Egoist.
For a proper understanding of faith and its relation to reason, see Faith: The Fruit of Reason
For more on Epistemology, see The Christian Egoist’s page on Epistemology
For an argument for the existence of God founded in a rational epistemology, see God: The Immovable Mover
For a full presentation of this integrated worldview, be on the look-out for my book in the works, The Galt-Like God: Meditations of a Christian Egoist
And for more on proper epistemological principles, and details of an integrated and rational morality, stay tuned by subscribing to the blog and liking The Christian Egoist on Facebook.