Review of My Debate with Matt Dillahunty (17 Jan 2013)

A Review of the Ferrer vs. Dillahunty debate
John D. Ferrer
January 19, 2013
[Hear the debate at:

Looking back on the debate last night I felt like it was an average performance on my part, maybe a B- or C+. Matt seemed well prepared to explain his own position on several points, and was ready and rehearsed with several stabs at theism such as his attack on the apparent injustice of deathbed confessions (w/ salvation). He was careful in reserving many contentious points lest he leave an open target for me. While I think I made my case for theism and a negative case against atheism, I cherish the perspective of hindsight. One great advantage looking back on this debate is that I now have a much better understanding of Dillahunty’s worldview commitments such as evidential criteria, agnostic-atheism (i.e.: negative atheism), moral grounding, evolution, and so on. Had I more time to prepare I would have poured over his many videos to better understand his positions in advance so I would not have to waste any debate time getting him to admit, for example, that well-being is his central moral value.

I already know my position, and many of its strengths and weaknesses. But I do not think my theistic stance is terribly original, and is largely known just by familiarizing one’s self with classical theism, particularly in the Thomistic tradition, although I did consciously avoid defending elaborate nuances of particular theological systems. I’m open to addressing whatever objections the audience may have but I suspect that a lot of them will be addressed already and indirectly by clarifying my objections to Matt’s position. Rather than elaborating it here I’ll just point out a few areas I think could have been improved on, and otherwise stand by my claims from the debate.

My Own Position

1) Theism is a credible starting point given the prima facia evidence of billions of witnesses. Matt’s dismissal of this point shows a faulty and/or baised evidential basis. Were Matt donning a positive atheist position (i.e.: Claing that “God does not exist”) then this antagonist position would make sense. Testimony is secondary and weighs less, in terms of evidence, than “smoking guns” or otherwise “hard” evidence such as is claimed by at least some positive atheists. But Matt is not claiming that there’s hard evidence against God’s existence of that sort, and if he is, then he should admit to being a positive atheist and admit a claim that God probably does not exist. The negative atheist however is not claiming probabilifying proof for either theism or positive atheism, and on pain of rationality would have to conclude that the evidence he’s so far seen does not make God’s existence highly probable or highly improbable. In this “middle” ground where he does not admit that positive atheism has been demonstrated, testimonial evidence can and should be granted the appropriate weight due to any testimonial evidence.
Remember, the character in question is not some immaterial “It” but a personal being that is intelligent and moral. Testimony is suitable evidence for the existence of persons. And since I offered testimonial evidence that far outweighs comparable testimonial evidence on atheism, then theism is at least a credible starting point. Notice however I am not saying that truth is up for a vote or that popularity proves veracity. No, this is testimonial evidence lending credibility.
This point also should not be overstated. The plentitude of witnesses establishes by the principle of credulity that God’s existence, in seeming true, probably is true. And that “seeming” is understood here to be a rather soft means of credibility. There is no specific numerical value I’m prepared to attribute to God’s existence on this basis except maybe, “greater than 50%.” But those witnesses are only indirect witnesses and they disagree in many points. One cannot get a highly refined theology or a narrow description of God this way. One can however establish that it is plausible to admit that nature is probably not all there is and some sort of God exists.

2) While that testimonial evidence is not conclusive proof, it’s corroborate evidence in line with other vindicated predictions of theism such as, (a) predicted ex nihilo cosmology, (b) tremendous design of the universe and (c) of life in the world, and (d) the significant but limited extent of corruption in the world. In the debate, Matt’s excursion into disteleology is a miss since even bad design is still design and design implies a designer.

3) Theism offers a transcendent mind sufficient to ground moral “oughts” as such. Atheism does not. As such, theism enables moral facts, objective moral knowledge, and objectively binding moral values to which people are accountable no matter whether they consider a given moral value consistent with their own well-being or not.

4) Theism offers all the benefits and strengths of naturalism without the same limitations. One can go deep into science, ask about the nature of man, believe in the sanctity of marriage, justify one’s sense of meaning in life, moral grounding, and one can employ all the natural causes and forces the naturalist can without restricting one’s explanations to natural causes alone. Wherever the stuff of nature seems to point beyond itself to supernature the theist does not have to stifle that intuition, suppress, or beat it into submission with zealous skepticism. He can measure out his own skepticism, doubt even his own standards of doubt, proceed to take all of his best natural reasoning, all of his best empirical observations, the best work of the natural sciences and synthesize those findings with other data sets gleaned from soft sciences, subjective experience, testimonial evidence, logic, and argumentation from other fields like philosophy and theology. The theist can indulge tough questions that do not fit in a science lab or would be too embarrassing to ask in a Skepticon rally. Plus, one does not have to start with the assumption that billions of people across history and the globe were all pitifully deluded at the most fundamental level about God.
Dillahunty’s Position
Dillahunty did make several point in the course of the debate that I did not get around to addressing, or did not address to my own satisfaction. I felt that other points I made either got lost, misunderstood, or otherwise came across as disjointed or dull (for example, the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism—ala. Plantinga).

1) Sliding Scale of Evidence
Dillahunty has yet to elaborate what evidence would suffice to demonstrate to him that God exists. He is clearly a skeptic by method. But he has also left an option open that can make his case look stronger than it is. Namely, he can adjust his evidential demands at will, or leave them unclarified as the mood takes him, so that whatever evidence for God is given, his criteria are never satisfied. So far, the evidence measures he’s given are skepticism—which by nature is not dogmatic and refuses to give “assent/belief” to any proposition. To keep one’s skepticism from engulfing the skeptic in Nietzschean nihilism one must stipulate some functional boundaries to that skepticism. Since he has not named any limit to his skepticism then he can, staying true to his system, consider himself rationally justified in refusing to believe any particular proposition he does not want to believe in. Now I should be clear. I think Matt is smarter than this, and if he has not already clarified this point (in reports I have not yet seen), I’m sure he would clarify his skeptical boundaries if graciously asked to do so. Even still, skepticism is only wise in its proper domain and I still await elaboration on what his evidential criteria are.
When I raised the point about doubt being equally liable to reject truth as reject lies, I think I failed to get my point across. Matt is right in appreciating a kind of default value for doubt. In many domains, where one need not make a committed choice, and especially where one’s choice carries great consequence, one should be skeptical. That’s a good working principle that I can agree with. My point though was that not every claim deserves doubt by default, such as “I myself exist,” “Claims occur,” “I’m thinking/speaking right now,” “Extra-mental reality exists,” “1 + 1 = 2,” and of course, the first principles of logic. Sure one can doubt these, and that doesn’t make one foolish automatically, but neither must one doubt these to be rationally justified in their treatment of these claims. Moreover, doubt still must have limits lest it operate like an overzealous guard-dog keeping away all potential intruders evil or good like the paper boy, the mailman, the neighbors, the family from out of town, etc. etc.

2) Negative Atheism
As expected, Dillahunty employed the now common view of atheism as “non-theism,” an abstention from God-belief. In terms of agnosticism this could also be called soft-agnosticism. I consciously avoided this point in the debate and will probably continue to do so since it is semantically nuanced, and, to be honest, not very interesting to many audiences. Plus, even if I could prove that negative atheism is a non-standard sense, Matt still would reserve the right to employ a stipulated variation on atheism so long as he uses his terms consistently. Here however, I have no problem making points that did not fit in the debate. By my research, the standard dictionary definition for atheism is not “non-theism” but rather “anti-theism.” That is, the notion of “positive” atheism more accurately describes the default sense of “atheism” as that is the widely held view reflected in dozens upon dozens of standard reference dictionaries from the Oxford English Dictionary, Random House, Routledge, Stanford, Cambridge, World Book, and numerous philosophical encyclopedias and dictionaries. The negative sense of atheism seems to have arisen in 1876 with the work of Charles Bradlaugh. And the strongest defense for negative atheism as the normal sense of “atheism” (at least as far as I have found) is in George Smith’s work Atheism, Ayn Rand and Other Heresies. I contend that Negative Atheism may have some tactical advantage in eschewing claim-status and thus avoiding direct burden of proof. But it carries several implicit claims that retain their own respective burden of proof. Namely, Negative atheism implies that positive atheists have not given sufficient proof to justify converting from negative to positive atheism. Positive atheists might be justified in “working on” the negative atheists otherwise the negative atheist includes positive atheists and theists alike in another implicit claim, namely, that those views are no more rational than negative atheism. Restated, negative atheists presumably do not want to be thought of as irrational or less rational than others, but to show that they are rational or more rational than others, they need to give reasons for that view. So far, the negative atheists I’ve encountered—including Matt—do not even pretend to do this. Instead they rest content in their non-committed state assuming that their doubt somehow innately qualifies them as responsibly rational people.

3) Not a Naturalist?
Dillahunty objected to being called a naturalist, meaning he is not a metaphysical naturalist (i.e.: the position which states that nature is all that exists). I understand that he is not forbidding the possibility that supernature may be demonstrated in the future. But the position seems to make a distinction without a difference. Unless he is proposing that nature is probably not all there is, then he would be a naturalist in every relevant sense I employed in the debate. He makes no appeals to supernature, actively argues against supernature, and in fact employs methodological naturalism and a broadly naturalistic worldview as his standard for evidence thus he seems by all measures to think that it is more likely the case that nature is all there is. The technical distinction he makes is therefore irrelevant. Sure, he is not claiming certainty about whether supernature exists or not. But neither am I for that matter, and I’m a supernaturalist. Matt would do better to describe himself as a skeptical naturalist—leaning naturalistic but reserving his skeptical right to doubt any element therein. It is however obstructive to refuse to admit naturalistic leanings—which are evident across Matt’s body of work. Restated, Matt seems to be employing some evidential criteria in his epistemology that he did not there admit; and the effect is that his metaphysics (i.e.: theory of being/existence) is functionally and ideologically naturalistic with only an irrelevant element of “revisability” nuancing his particular brand.

4) Methodological Naturalism
Instead of metaphysical naturalism (or simply “naturalism”) Matt embraces methodological naturalism as his means of evaluating evidence. He may have other criteria for measuring evidence, but so far as I could tell, methodological naturalism is his overarching framework for testing evidence. If Matt does not specify other criteria appropriate to supernature then he’s effectively concluded there’s no supernature because he methodologically presumed there’s no supernature. He forbids evidence of the supernatural and then pretends to have demonstrated there’s no credibility to supernaturalism. But we have no reason to expect that a supernatural being could fit in the confines invented specifically for natural science. Why would we expect an immaterial God to submit material measures? Whoever dons methodological naturalism has, to that extent, decided not to consider whether God exists. God’s existence is a category excluded by method, not by proof, not by evidence, not by demonstration.
In the debate we did not elaborate methodological naturalism. It goes something like this, one limits the range of causes and effects to the stuff of nature—natural forces, natural objects, natural properties, etc. Typically methodological naturalism is employed as a major, primary or exclusive manner of conducting natural science. Supposing it is appropriate to natural science where nature is the object in question, that would say nothing of what method would be appropriate to supernature. By appealing to methodological naturalism, Dillahunty’s logic would seem to go something like this:

Premise 1: All E is ~V [By meth. nat.], All evidence of God’s existence is invalid.
Premise 2: All X is E X is Evidence of God’s existence
Conclusion: All X is ~V Therefore evidence X is invalid.

This manner of logic is formally valid but informally invalid. In classic Aristotelean categories it makes no formal errors and is a valid syllogism (for Logic nerds, it’s valid in the form nicknamed “Barbara”). But its informal fallacy should be obvious. The first premise is only appropriate if one is trying to study nature. Were someone trying to discover God, learn about God, test or prove God, then methodological naturalism would be totally unfit. Some combination of fallacious presumption or equivocation are at work since premise one is only justified were natural causes at question; if supernatural causes are at question, then one cannot consider that option by methodological naturalism. Using this method one cannot address miracles even if they were true; or God’s existence even if he really existed. It is fine to use a brand of naturalism to study nature. But the tools don’t fit if one tries to use the same restrictive rubric to study supernature.
Now I imagine that Dillahunty has some other criteria lurking within his theory of knowledge, but it should be clear now that if he did not or if he subjected all other criteria to methodological naturalism then he has stacked the deck in his favor presuming, by method, there’s no God and then concluding from evidence of nature that there’s no God (worthy of belief).

5) Scientism
Upon listening to the debate a 2nd time it became evident that Matt seems to think that the only verifiable claims are scientific claims. He has an overwhelming preference for scientific measures, scientific evidence, and does not seem to appreciate how he has slipped into a kind of circular argument by overlooking the elided prefix to “science,” namely, natural science. He has allowed for only nature and then pretends to have found that nature is the only thing that shows up. Well of course, if his labcoat doormen refuse to let any supernaturally fitting evidence to enter the house then of course he will not find any credible supernatural evidence. Underneath Matt’s intellectual skepticism lies a circular fundamentalism. He is not a skeptic through and through. He is a dogmatist of the scientistic form.
Scientism is what it sounds like, it is science made into an –ism; it’s natural science stretched into a worldview. This view was popular among early 20th century logical positivists but it always suffered a core problem with its verificationist principle. The verificationist principle—a cousin to Matt’s methodological naturalism—dictates that the only knowledge is that which is true by definition or is an empirical fact. In essence, this is a natural science framing of knowledge. But the problem was that this principle is not itself true-by-definition, nor an empirical fact. Science did not produce the verificationist principle, nor methodological naturalism for that matter. In Matt’s words methodological naturalism is how claims are verified, but methodological naturalism cannot itself be verified as the sole means of verification. Methodological naturalism is not proven by science but presumed by many scientists. And even then, it’s not clear at all that methodological naturalism is necessary for all science (I make this case in the debate). Methodological naturalism is a philosophical proposal and is not itself scientifically testable, and especially not by its self-stated method. Thus Dillahunty has positioned his scientific bias squarely on top of a philosophical pedastool. Worse yet, he does not seem to realize that his scientism is self-defeating, imploding when applied to itself.
He has defined his methodology in such a way that without admitting to metaphysical naturalism or to positive atheism he can share all the benefits of these by proposing that the only verifiable evidence is that which conforms to his naturalistic rubric. And yes I am suggesting metaphysical naturalism as that would have to be his implicit leaning if he thinks that methodological naturalism is somehow a sufficient map for the knowledge of reality.

6) Mind-brain Identity Theory & Determinism
Matt espoused the idea that the mind is nothing but the brain. What he did not elaborate was that this belief is a form of determinism, making all his testimony coerced and invalid, filtering all his thoughts through an arbitrary screen of unthinking truth-neutral forces, seriously undermining or preventing him from having a transcendent perspective to do things like “think about thinking,” translating his whole person into a mere tool and instrument of prior forces, nullifying free-will as we know it, retranslating human intelligence into unreflective impersonal computer programming, denying the existence of souls, and overall committing the Reductivist error nicknamed the “Nothing-Buttery” Fallacy. Obviously I have a lot to say about the Mind-brain identity thesis. But let me just mention a few problems as they should be enough to sway the reader and perhaps shame Matt into abandoning this horrible idea.
The Nothing-Buttery fallacy refers to an overzealous negative claim typically in the form of “S is nothing but P.” Now there are some true and valid claims of this form. For example, “Let ‘Bachelor’ refer to its primary sense of ‘unmarried male’ and so, ‘Bachelor is nothing but an ‘unmarried male.'” When the terms are stipulated like that, or when the range of one’s claim is already small, universal negatives can be fine. But matt was not talking about some stipulated sense or some small set of objects. He was talking about every human mind in history across the globe. His claim had global scope. Wise thinkers dare to tread on such universal claims without the most bountiful evidence and most qualified language. By making this claim Matt is not alone. Many who exercise great faith in a Darwinian or otherwise materialist views of the world have joined him there. I do not have such great faith in Darwin as Matt seems to. The mind-brain thesis is hardly conventional to philosophy of mind or even neurology. Just to name a few expert opponents there are atheist philosophers of mind John Searle and Thomas Nagel and atheist medical scientist Raymond Tallis.
Some problems with this Mind-brain thesis is that Matt cannot possibly know that about all human minds unless he is willing to grant arguments from analogy—which many atheists reject for its implications in the design argument (teleological argument). Since my mind is liable to have differences from his mind or from my own mind 4 years ago or from Og’s mind 10,000 years ago then to claim that “Minds are nothing but brains” one would have to propose to have knowledge of minds and brains that one has never encountered, that no single science nor set of scientists have ever encountered, which vary in size, shape, and density as they are found across different cultures, different times, and different people. Those are a lot of differences. And to be fair, even Matt’s own mind has changed over time and his very own ability to think about it. Dozens even hundreds of brain scans and controlled experiments on brain function have failed to ever access 1st person subjective experience, nor account for 2-way causality (where mind could affect brain and brain affect mind), nor explain how people can deliberate, create, judge, believe, communicate, self-motivate, intend, etc. etc. So those experiments have hardly even broached the hearty center of “the soul.” It is like an investigator cutting through perimeter fences, sampling the shrubs, and then concluding that there’s no house sitting right in front of you since all you looked for was a fence and some shrubs.
The mind-brain identity thesis also errs by treating people as identical to zombies. To describe human beings in a way identical with zombies, i.e.: lacking distinct mind or soul, leaves something out. If zombies are even possible in theory, then Matt’s brand of physicalism is false. Our own self-knowledge of consciousness, where we are self-aware and can choose things (etc.), distinguishes us from zombies thus we are not in fact zombies as the mind-brain identity thesis proposes.
Also, if the mind were just the brain then all we ever say is forced on us, we are instruments of prior forces without any choice or independent causal power to contradict our programming. This is unfortunate since Matt and myself would both be coerced witnesses, giving invalid testimony since everything we’ve ever thought, intended, desired, known, believed, felt, said, proposed, conjecture, etc. etc. was invalid on pain of coercion.
Lastly, Matt’s position generates an odd consequence, namely, if mind is just brain then one cannot know that mind is just brain. Here’s how that works. Knowledge is some sort of warranted, justified or otherwise rightfully gained “true belief.” But our ideas never amount to knowledge if all ideas that people have are forced on us by ultimately non-intelligent coercive natural forces. In that case, our ideas are never justified/warranted/or rightfully gained. I might as well believe in Russell’s orbiting teapot—if that idea is forced on me by no choice of my own, without any transcendent leverage whereby I can disagree with that idea, judge its truth, or willfully assent to it. If Matt were right in his mind-brain identity thesis then he had to believe it so, regardless of whether it is true or not, yet he cannot know it either since he’s never justified in that belief.
Thus the mind-brain identity theory is a big hot mess. To be sure, it avoids some of the explanatory difficulties of dualistic theories (i.e.: where mind and brain are distinct), but only at the cost of embracing incoherency, impossibility, while denying all human knowledge and free-will whatsoever.

7) Utilitarianism
Matt affirmed a “modified utilitarianism.” I do not know what about utilitarianism he has modified but to the extent that he affirms utilitarianism he has welcomed a wicked intruder into his ethic. My guess is that his ‘modification’ is that he rejects relativism and some forms of ulitarianism are relativistic. For those who aren’t familiar with utilitarianism, it’s a fairly adaptable ethical system that operates on the general principle that “the ends justify the means,” and specifically, “maximized well-being for the most people” is that “end.” Utilitarianism however has faced a lot of fire in its history and though it has not been destroyed, neither has it managed to fix its most glaring problems. These problems include
(a) It is ungrounded. As established earlier, Matt’s moral theory is ungrounded and appealing to utilitarianism does not help. He appeals to reason, and utilitarianism suits that rubric fine but reason is still a rubric, a framework, needing input. Matt never established what is the metaphysical grounding for his moral values. Utilitarian calculus, intuition, basic moral knowledge—these are all fine but don’t address my moral argument at all since they only explain how one comes to a moral conclusion. They do not explain where that input comes from or what makes that input moral. Stated another way, Dillahunty persistently confused moral epistemology (theory of knowledge) with moral ontology (theory of existence/being). How we know something is a different issue what makes that object “knowledge.”
(b) How long is the long run? Any given ethically weighted act is good or bad depending on its outcomes, but depending on how far into the future one is forecasting the outcomes can shift from bad to good to bad to good again. It is not clear how “long” that long run must be before the ethical calculating should stop.
(c) Utilitarian calculus can justify most anything. Genocide is fine if more net people are benefitted than harmed by it. Rape is okay if the pleasing results outweigh the harms.
(d) Utilitarian calculus is too much to compute/too contingent on the future. While the basic idea of “anticipating outcomes” is fine, and plausible, the extent of those outcomes, relevant causes, potential variables and such quickly prove too hard to calculate. Not to mention, one is liable to have to predict the future where an ethical choice is pending but the future is contingent, unclear, and loaded with dilemmas.
(e) Utilitarianism has no real metaethic to speak of. Specifically, it has little in the way of metaphysics of ethics wherein “goodness” is given a robust and defensible grounding. Great utilitarians such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham both resorted to Hedonism in elaborating the basis of their system since all they could really say about “good” at the grounding level was, “People want pleasure.”
(f) Utilitarianism fails to adequately account for motives. By utilitarian rubrics, if a heroic person dove into a river to save a child but failed—losing the child and suffering hypothermia and losing hand—that act was evil. There was a net gain in harm, a loss of life and function, and well-being was hampered. But clearly that man’s motivations matter a great deal even while utilitarianism is behaviorist, focusing on behaviors and their outcomes.
(g) Utilitarianism does not adequately address virtues and character. Being an action-based system (behaviorist), the internal causes of those actions—such as virtue and character—are lost, being ethically neutral. But clearly intentions, virtues, and character do have moral weight even if the individual were prevented from acting on them.
(h) Utiltarianism is overdemanding. As a system it does not distinguish between people but treats all people equally. This sounds good for politics but becomes absurd and overbearing on individuals who, for example, have equal duty to feed their own kids as feed kids in a far off country. One cannot justify serving that extra helping of oatmeal when that oatmeal can better feed a needy orphan in Africa. One cannot justify buying a 3 bedroom house when a 2 bedroom would suffice for you, your wife, and two kids. One could never justify even the slightest luxury since there is always someone somewhere with a more pressing need you’re your luxury, and we are ethically bound to serve them indiscriminately. The problem is not that people are unequal but rather that we naturally recognize levels of moral duty within relevant social spheres. I have more duty to my wife than to the rest of my family, more duty to the rest of my family than to the neighbors, more duty to my neighbors than to strangers, more duty to strangers than to material objects, etc. etc. Utiltiarianism would otherwise have only one absolute and objective rule of “maximizing pleasure/well-being to the most people,” leaving “well-being” to be relativistically or objectively conceived according to the individual theorists’ views.
(i) On a related note, utilitarianism is too neutral. Even while we should treat other in some sense equally, we have no ethical duty to treat total strangers with the same care and generosity as our own children, especially where our resources are limited and the “strangers” constitute a serious imposition on us.
(j) Well-being remains dangerously unclear. This is not some idle demand for more information. This is a core problem for most every ethical system yet proffered. It is one thing to propose a generic phrase devoid of specific meaning; it is another thing to clarify what justifies a particular sense of “well-being.” I suspect that Dillahunty has some covert hedonism to his system, but is wise enough to see that brute universal pleasure-seeking would probably not suffice for mature ethical proposals. When I proposed the “Pedophiles sense of ‘well-being'” Matt bristled, but I still do not see what grounds he has, within his system, for telling the pedophile that his sense of well-being is wrong and that he must conform to Matt’s alternative sense of well-being. Nor has Matt shown who wide-ranging that “well-being” should extend. Most the whole of humanity be included? Need “enlightened” people alone be concerned? And if well-being is for one group radically individualistic, isolationist, and socially hostile; who is Matt to tell them that they should buy-into another groups sense of well-being that includes pro-choice abortion advocacy, gay-marriage, gun rights, and big-government? In my own worldview I agree that we should seek after our own well-being and the well-being of others, but I don’t know what that would mean except for relativistic hedonism (i.e.: ungrounded pleasure-based ethics) or virtue ethics (for example, Augustine and Aquinas).
(k) “Well-being” is more relativism unless Matt shows an objectively grounded definition of it that is not itself subject to fundamental redefinition.
(l) Utilitarian calculations discriminate against minorities and minority views. When a small minority of people disagree with a policy that will benefit more people than it hurts, that small group thereby becomes ethically evil. This fact seems to arbitrate morality in a kind of cultural relativism, the same kind of relativism that Matt openly rejects. This scenario also illustrates how “well-being” and “pleasure” fail to achieve objectivity in utilitarianism given that they are subject to redefinition with each utilitarian recalibration.
(m) Utilitarianism prevents people from doing good for its own sake since no ethical “means” is intrinsically good, all means are only made good by their results. But suppose one gives $20 dollars to a friend to help with Gas. Expecting nothing in return, you gave out of pure altruism. But your friend lost the $20 to the wind and it floated down into the sewer, gone forever. Your act was not good, no matter your motivations, no matter your character, no matter that you did it for its own sake. Your act was bad for being wasteful since your friend lost the money.
(n) To summarize the overall objection to Utilitarianism, ends do not justify the means, means must themselves be justified. This line of argument comes up time and again when atheists argue that theists should support abortion since morally innocent babies would, presumably, get a direct pass to heaven. Abortion then would be a guaranteed entrance into the Pearly Gates. But the flaw in this thinking is that it assumes that an evil act—intentionally killing innocent human life for the sake of convenience—is somehow justified by some greater good on the other end. The context was not even a dilemma context, which, it might be admitted are special cases. No, in utilitarianism dilemmas are not even required so long as a person can rape, murder, or steal their way into creating something better than the harms incurred—then rape, murder and steal to your heart’s content.
Clearly utilitarianism is troubling option and does not lend itself well to serious ethicists unless they can do the needed work to solve the problems just mentioned.

8) Accusation of Magic
In trying to trivialize the claims of theism Matt cast as supernatural causes as “magic” even though, by my contention they are discernible, evidential, rational causes. His point then is a misconception bordering on an ad hominem. Unfortunately for Matt, I’m not the one saying that minds arose spontaneously from non-minds, life came from non-life, consciousness from non-consciousness, that the universe popped out of thin air, or that the marvelous apparent design in nature is all illusion, or that moral knowledge arose from non-moral nature. These are magic. They definitely are not the demonstrations of natural science. If anyone’s worldview appeals to magic it’s Matt’s. If he’s characterizing all non-mechanical causes as “magic” then he has to call his very own words magic since the fact of language, meaning, intention, and consciousness all required in human language have so far proven inexplicable by natural mechanical causes even while the fact of intelligent causality is the most obvious direct knowledge people can have. It is impossible to even consider a claim of science without first existing as a self, sufficient to do things like “consider,” and both of those constitute human intelligence.
Conversely, for the design argument in theism, the kinds of causes proposed within theism are identical to the kinds of causes we observe in ourselves. We see intelligence manifested in human artifacts and infer it, by comparison, in non-human artifacts. Matt may not like this inference, or he may have principled objections to this design inference, but to call it magic means he doesn’t understand what Intelligent Design theory has been stating all along, or he likes to cast aspersions like “magic” around rather loosely. The only way that could be magic is if the same kind of design that human’s manifest is also magic.
Atheists, in my experience, have a bad habit of characterizing divine causality as some sort of fanciful magic land of pixy dust and wishful ignorance. Were that theism I’d be an atheist too. That is a strawman. Perhaps theists haven’t done their job explaining, exemplifying, and defending classical theism. But whatever the cause, Dillahunty has no good cause to call intelligent supernatural intervention “magic” any more than he has for calling intelligent natural intervention “magic.” I’m not talking about a categorically different kind of intelligence. I really do mean God’s mind causes human minds; that our intelligence reflects his, at least incompletely. God is at least as rational and self-consistent as we are. And that God can affect the world at least comparably to how our minds affect our bodies.

9) Is-ought Problem
My phrasing of the moral argument deals heavily in the is-ought problem challenging Matt to show how his system ensures any moral truth whatsoever. Matt, to his credit, affirms moral objectivism. Likewise he rightly admits that “‘Is’ does not give us an ‘ought'” referring to the classic “is-ought” problem where descriptive facts seem unfit to generate prescriptive values. But, as expected, Matt suggests that two or more “is’s” can give us an “ought.” He clarified this point for me in the debate explaining that two “is’s” serving as premises of an argument can generate a conclusion with an “ought” in it. For example,

Premise 1: Rape is evil.
Premise 2: P is a kind of rape (and lacks any justifying consequence).
Conclusion: Therefore P ought not be done.

The two premises are “is” statements but the conclusion is an “ought” statement. I agree with this logic and with the conclusion but it does nothing to demonstrate anything useful to Matt’s grounding problem. His logic is not actually Is + Is = Ought but rather Is-ought + Is = Ought. He already has a moral value (“rape is evil”) packed into the first premise. He has not derived an “ought” from a set of “is’s” but rather, from other more basic moral claims. Meanwhile, the is-ought problem addresses where one’s “oughts” originate. Matt does not seem to understand the weight of the is-ought problem (aka.: Naturalistic fallacy or Fact-value dichotomy) especially since he has said previously that this problem did not impress him and that he largely agrees with the moral philosophy of Sam Harris. Sam Harris is little help for Matt here since Harris has seen almost universal assault for his philosophically naïve “The Moral Landscape.” Chief among Harris’ errors is his dismissal of the is-ought problem, presumptuous treatment of “well-being,” and his foolhearty faith in mind-brain identity thesis (see above)—all of which Matt mirrors in his own moral philosophy. As such, Harris is little help and Matt still needs to show how he gets moral “oughts” as truthmakers without appeal to a supernatural mind. Without a demonstrated objective grounding for moral oughts, he shows no escape from moral relativism despite his consistent claims to the contrary. Everything he has yet offered in describing his moral system is consistent with moral relativism (be it cultural/ conventialism or individual/subjectivism).

10) Arbitrariness of Moral Values
Perhaps the most shocking admission that Matt made was that evolution could have generated radically different ethical values than what we have today. Matt brushed this off as wasted hypothesizing, but I do not think he understood the gravity of his admission. If core ethical values could have been radically different—ala: rape is good, charity is bad—then the moral values we do have are arbitrary byproducts of unthinking evolutionary forces. Arbitrary values are ultimately ungrounded and or relative. Sure I may have non-ethical duties to conform to the laws of nature—like gravity, survival of the fittest, etc.—but those do not rise to the level of objective morality, they are merely functional “oughts” relative to the particular accidents of nature. They are not intrinsic to humanity, nor are they universal, nor are they objectively binding but only relatively so. Morality is reduced from robust moral categories to flimsy descriptions of how nature happens to have turned out. Oughts dissolve into “is,” and prescriptions lose their glorious force that set morality apart. Of course I do not believe that evolution can generate any objective ethical values at all, but even if it could, Matt’s admission reduces moral values to arbitrary accidents.

In summary, Matt made some telling confessions and tipped his cards at several points showing that underneath his moral objectivism is a groundless relativism; beneath his skepticism is naturalistic dogmatism; and beneath his negative atheism is positive atheism. The net result is that his worldview lacks the fullness and power to account for reality like theism does. Theism is preferable to atheism.

15 thoughts on “Review of My Debate with Matt Dillahunty (17 Jan 2013)

  1. Hi, I am an atheist and my reasoning and positions are very similar to Matt’s. I would like to respond to what you say in pieces.

    “Theism is a credible starting point given the prima facia evidence of billions of witnesses.”

    You need to first identify what you mean by a deity. Then you need to set out who the witnesses are, how you know about them, what they are saying, and how you know it is accurate. Please do so.

    1. Before I directly answer your question, let me first try to simplify the matter. Are you denying that there are billions of witnesses to a broadly moral, intelligent, supernatural being? If so, then what is your grounds for that denial because the stats on religious belief are not hard to dig up at all and your epistemology would then be the “fringe” position deserving justification.

      I stated several of my evidential criteria in the review and in the debate. Restating one of them here, I grant as a normative principle that the more witnesses attesting to something the more credible it is. Of course, billions of people could still be wrong so I’m not saying strictly that truth is up for a vote or we can be certaint of X if some high number of witnesses agree on it. But concurrently, the more witnesses attesting to something the less likely it is to be false. Two heads are better than one; and billions of heads constitute a lot of questioning, curiosity, doubt and disbelief to filter through to their final conclusion that God probably exists. In that way I distinguish credibility from veracity (i.e.: the realm of most formal and informal fallacies). While the Atheist may jump to “Geo-centric cosmology, the church promoted that and most people agreed with that for years”–that is true. But I strongly doubt that you can find sufficient examples comparable to Geo-centrism to counterbalance all the many beliefs that are shared which show how generally plausible ideas are when billions agree. Billions of people agree that people exist, the universe is somehow “real,” that they themselves can think, that numbers work, that they can’t jump to the moon, that couches are furniture, that air is to be breathed and not drunk, that boats float, etc. etc. etc. Hence, I submit that God-belief is a plausible prima facia starting point, held tentatively but credibly. God probably exists, and I put it to the atheist to show that he does not or that my credibility basis is somehow disreputable.

      Also, in your line of questioning I think I smell (what I call) a Clarification Fallacy demanding undue levels of clarification. Literally any claim can be badgered with abundant questioning demanding endless levels of clarification. The skeptic should himself lay out a fair and plausible set of criteria for doubt which can be applied consistently; otherwise his skepticism risks arbitrary selective doubt of whatever he/she does not want to believe.

      1. I am not denying anything. I am trying to understand what you are claiming. I accept that billions of people identify as religious. I highly doubt that any of these could provide credible testimony of the existence of a deity. Being in a religion is not the same as experiencing a deity. Without such experience, there is nothing to testify to. I would accept that many or most religious people would say they have experienced a deity. However, when such claims are probed they sound either crazy or hopelessly vague.

        I think you would also agree that there would be massive disagreement with respect to the identity or the number of the deities people would have experienced. I think we would be left with the most credible claims being something like a warm feeling of presence or something. To me this is not testimony of a deity, but of a feeling.

        We are left with the massively divergent testimony of billions, not billions of people agreeing. So I do not grant your prima facie case. But I am speculating on what you are saying these witnesses would agree on. Please do specify what shared or same experience it is you are claiming these witnesses would testify to, and why you think they would be credible.

      2. Please do not try to make this about what I believe or claim. You have tried to make a prima facie case for the existence of at least one deity by appealing to the testimony of billions. A person can only offer testimony of what they have witnessed. If you are simply saying they believe in a god but have not necessarily an experience of a god, you should stop saying billions can offer testimony.

        If these billions believe, they may do so for a variety of reasons, maybe cultural, indoctrination. I don’t know. The strength of your argument varies directly with the similarity of the claims. I think you agree that at most, what these billions agree on that they have faith that “something” exists. Some mighty say a god, some vague notion of spirituality.

        Basically you are saying that because so many believe in something, I should grant that some kind of deity exists as a default. I don’t because when pressed for reasons why they believe all say “faith” or other poor reasons. I don’t accept your appeal to popularity as a foundational reason for belief instead.

        If you accept that your vague appeal to popularity does not establish a prima facie case, we can move on. My standard for this is credible evidence, not vague assertions that theism is popular. So is Santa. At least hundreds of millions would testify to his existence.

  2. You said, “I [42Oolon] am not denying anything.”
    If you are not denying, then are you affirming the credibility of these witnesses? The rest of your post sounds like you are denying their credibility as witnesses. Which is it? Are you choosing a third option?

    For the most part I can grant that all your challenges have some degree of merit. I’m not claiming that all religions agree in all their core points, they don’t. I admit that in the debate. Nor would I go to the line defending just any particular miracle claim they make. There are a handfull of miracles that I think are defensible but most miracles don’t lend themselves to proof or are otherwise suspect. But neither do these kinds of specific objections work to sweep away all the billions of testimonies (not necessarily witnesses per se). Your objections fail to ruin the initial probability favoring the billions of people who believe in a supernatural realm that is intelligent and moral (i.e.: I’m not arguing in that line of evidence for the whole Abrahamic God, but just employing some broad evidence for only a broad conclusion), especially since those billions of believers have tens of thousands of religious experiences among them, and hundreds of miracle claims among them. Altogether, you can whittle those numbers down a bit with the lines of objection you raised, but you have not given a substantive prima facia evidence that justifies believing that all of those people are non-credible witnesses to the plausibility of god-belief.

    Also, your closing paragraph seems confused. I’m not saying these people share an experience, like its the same “feeling” or “God-node” in the brain. I’m saying these people give common testimony to God’s existence. I’m sure some of them had some special “feeling” accompany that knowledge, others reasoned to it, some had unfeeling intuition, etc. etc. How they came to that belief is irrelevant to me. My argument doesn’t deal with or rely on their existential state but rather the metaphysical claims. I presume that individuals are generally the best authors of their own encounter with reality, and if the individual says he saw God, well there’s at least some possibility that he did. I wouldn’t grade that probability very high if, like aliean abductees, there were only a couple dozen. But I’m skeptical enough to allow that there are all sorts of weird things that could happen or could turn out to be the case. But when billions of people agree on something, it’s either reality or a gargantuan conspiracy. Theism has not had anything to hide for centuries now and has laid its entrails open to the world for every skeptic to dissect. So I don’t buy the conspiracy claim.

    Also remember, that if you are suggesting that all of those people are deluded about God’s existence then your explanatory system still must account for how there could exist such chronic misinformation and willful self-delusion about God’s existence. And that explanation must itself stand up to scrutiny by comparable measures that you launch at me.

    Also, you have not stated what your criteria of judgment are. Please tell me what are the boundaries of your skepticism so that I know you are wielding your skepticism fairly and objectively without favoring preconceptions you may already have.

  3. Ad populum appeal does not apply here for the same reasons I clarified in the debate. I won’t repeat it here. If you have dissuasive argument against my defense please share. Repeating “popular appeal” does not make it so.

    I think we are talking past each other on the nature of “witness/testimony.” You seem to use it in a strictly empirical sense. But since the vast majority of what we actually encounter, experience, know or feel lies beneath the empirical senses (i.e.: qualia, subjective perspective, judgment, cognition, etc.) I do not at all consider that the only or even the primary kind of “witness” or “testimony.”

    You seem to prefer an empirical sense of “witness/testimony” but you have not stated as much or shown how or why your presumed “standard” (?) of empirical evidence would even apply, fairly, to an immaterial being, much less a supernatural being. And you still have not clarified what your criteria are, but instead are trying to antagonize mine. I welcome critique, but if you are not laying your cards on the table then I have no way of knowing if you have a better hand than me and thus have no strong reason to concede this “hand” of evidence.

  4. Also, I can grant that people can arrive at religious belief for a number of fallacious reasons. Likewise people can arrive at an atheistic conclusion, or a naturalistic conclusion, or a materialistic conclusion, or a skeptical conclusion without sufficient justification or otherwise clear and responsible reasons. But where billions of people testify belief in something as true, that’s excellent prima facia evidence. I do not grant, as you seem to do, that highly attested beliefs are to be deemed false or non-credible until proven true or credible. That methodology seems very problematic given that most of the knowledge in existence can only be accessed by composite testimonial evidence on testimonial evidence–regardless of empirical verification. For example, among the billions of people in the world who have, say, 85% of all knowledge en toto, I may have only 1-2%, and then it becomes pretty arbitrary to rule their testimony out methodologically unless I can filter their 85% through my 1-2% and see it vindicated/verified.

    1. Keeping in mind that it is you, not I, who is making a claim. It is incumbent on you to provide your reasoning for the claim, by what standard of proof you are using and what standards of evidence you accept.

      My standard of proof is a balance of probabilities. My standards of evidence are generally western common law standards (i.e. much lower than scientific standards). When it comes to testimony, I would accordingly accept CREDIBLE testimony of facts. These facts may be things observed by the witnesses by way of their senses or internal states, including feelings and thoughts. But obviously, testimony must be from a witness who has experienced something.

      If you are not making an ad populum argument, the numbers of accounts is not relevant right? It is the credibility of the account and what facts the accounts testify to, right?

      I have never heard a single credible account of a deity from personal experience. Perhaps you could specify what a credible account would be?

    1. I had been thinking up a response but life got in the way. I have been in a hurricane of activities and busyness the last week. Where were we?

      Oh, yeah. Anectdotal fallacy. You rebutted my supposed ad populum with an appeal to anecdotal evidence that cannot possibly represent even a significant minority of the billions of believers who through their many and various measures have come to believe in God. You are committing an anecdotal fallacy, presuming that your handful of experiences constitutes significant disproof of billions of people who contradict yours.

      Also, not just any appeal to the masses/popular view is fallacious. It is a fallacy when one assumes that what is popular must be true. All I’m arguing is that what is very very popular is more likely true than what is–all else being equal–highly unpopular. I’m appealing to credibility and probability, not certainty or strict veracity. An ad populum refers not simply to the popularity or number of testimonies one employs but rather to what one tries to do with that testimonial evidence, namely, deem something true/verified when instead all that can be claimed is that, presuming that billions of people are not likely utterly deceived and they collectively have at least half a wit between them, they are credible in their agreed claim. I have admitted and continue to admit that billions of people can still be wrong, they have been wrong before (i.e.: geocentrism) but they are moreoften right (i.e.: all sorts of other claims, beliefs and ideas that were never overturned–such as how seeds grow into plants and trees, babies come out of mommies not daddies; the earth is round; fire is hot; ice is not; the moon exists; etc. etc.). The idea of God’s existence submits to inumerable measures suitable to theological/philosophical claims (i.e.: as opposed to naturalistic measures only suited to natural claims–you and Matt make this same mistake) and has come through as theoretically possible, philosophically plausible, and widely held. It is presumptuous to assume in one’s Ivory Tower that “we” the intelligentsia know more than those ignorant masses since we know science, we know skepticism, and we dare to doubt where they are gullible primitives, etc. etc.

      I take it as a given that when billions of believers are involved in asserting a common acceptance of supernaturalism that they have a whole host of unique measures and evidences to support their position. These will vary in degree, kind, objectivity, subjectivity, etc. Some of them will have had ridiculously improbable providence happen to them; others claim fulfilled prophecy; other claim to have seen miracles; others say they see it in studying Genetics or the stars or flagellum; others claim like C.S. Lewis that they cannot “see” without that “light of the sun”; others are persuaded to it by apologetics; others are raised in it; others saw a friend or family members life transformed; others claim to have had God speak hidden knowledge into their hearts; and some probably had bad pizza the night before and dreamed about hell; etc. etc. etc. And of course, there are neurological patterns suggesting that people are not innately atheist (contrary to what many atheists have claimed) but are instead “wired for God belief.” If we are also wired for truth-seeking, and estimating truth, testing truth, and finding truth (ala, Matt’s suggestion in rebuttal to the Evolutionary argument against naturalism) then suddenly Atheism has some unexplained evidence that seems to stand against the uncommitted indifference of negative atheism.

      How do you justify the indifference of your “non-claim” status when billions of people, well into this modern age, continue to believe in a God? How do you account for those billions of people in any way that is not simply dismissive, arrogant, or presumptuous? Instead of substantively defending your rubric of evidence you simply EMPLOY your rubric, namely anecdotal evidence–perhaps numbering in the hundreds witnesses (at best).

  5. I accept that billions of people identify as theists. I do not accept ‘that they have a whole host of unique measures and evidences to support their position”. You and I could go back and forth proposing justifications for these billions, or a lack thereof, but because we just don’t know it would get us nowhere.

    I have asked you to be more specific about what you think they would say and why, but you have declined.

    I have asked you to put forward an example of even one credible account, you have declined.

    All I am left with is for your prima facie case is:

    P1) Billions of believe in at least one god.
    P2) When billions of people all believe the same thing (regardless of their reasons), it is more likely than not to be true.
    C) Therefore it is more likely true that at least one god exists.

    I think this argument is valid, but not sound. I reject P2, and so do you. (If you do not, you would have to accept a prima facie case for Islam as well as Hinduism.) You have said at least once that you accept many of my criticisms as having merit. Can you also agree that your reasoning for the prima facie case fails to get you over my standard of proof?

    I do not need to justify a non-claim status. I am not indifferent to billions being theists.

  6. You said, “[you] do not accept ‘that they have a whole host of unique measures and evidences to support their position.”

    I myself have a whole host of measures and lines of evidence to support my theism. If all the other billions of believers have even some of these, then there are a whole host of measures and evidences offered for theism. For example, subjective direct revelation from God, the indirect subjective experience of others, causal arguments from the origin of the universe (i.e.: Kalaam and other forms of the Cosmological argument), Fine Tuning Argument, Irreducible complexity, Specified Complexity, Arguments from Mind, Arguments from Truth, Argument from Objective Beauty, i’m not a fan of the Ontological argument but not entirely opposed to it either. Arguments from miracles such as the resurrection. Arguments from prophecy, Defenses for the integrity of the Bible or other holy books. And abductive arguments as well.

    What is not clear at all, and what you seem to presume, is that none of the billions of people for all the many means and measures they are liable to have in support of their belief, deserve any prima facia initial credibility. Your skeptical method remains unjustified (and either non-rational or irrational) since you seem to think that the mere possibility that they are wrong somehow constitutes a probability case that they are all wrong.

  7. You have listed a number of arguments. Most of these are bad arguments, the rest are entirely subjective.

    If the billions are relying on the same flawed arguments as you, I am right to dismiss them based on their merit alone, regardless of the number of people who adopt them or reject them.

    I do grant you that billions likely would assert a subjective revelation from or experience of god. I would even grant you that this fact justifies a position that does not reject theism out of hand as one might do less popular supernatural claims. However, given that you are asserting a supernatural claim, I must look more closely at what is being presented. Either the billions really experienced an otherwise undetectable deity, or they have mistaken another experience for a deity. To figure this out we need examine at least some of these claims. When we do, we consider that the more specific and realistic the personal experience is claimed to be, the less credible it is. (e.g. “Jesus is in the room can’t you see him? I do.” “I met Jesus and spoke to him in the US he showed me where these golden plates which I can’t show you are buried”. “I, David Koresh am the second coming…”) The rest are so vague as to not specify a deity at all. I have asked you to counter this with just one credible personal experience out of the billions, perhaps your own? Find me the best one. Like representative plaintiff in a class action. But you have declined. Why?

    We also find huge irreconcilable divergence and contradictions in these claims of personal experience which lessens their weight. Remember, if the deities in which people believe in were as real as they claim, nothing would prevent these personal experiences from being universal, uniform, specific and observable by third parties. For example if Ganesh were to appear with his elephant head to all humans on the same night and everybody saw him regardless of whether we were alone, I would believe. But, as far as I can tell we never find anything like this, in fact quite the opposite. The experiences are always completely internal or they happen when the person is alone.

    Again, if you have evidence of any of the above elements which would assist in the credibility, please bring it.

    I do not presume that billions of people believe one thing or another. You are making the claim, you need to back it up. I do not think my skeptical method is unjustified. It is simply asking for sufficient evidence to justify belief. I have given you my standards of evidence and proof and applied them to this issue. What standards are you applying?

  8. I have a logical question about the supernatural.

    Can you (or anyone really) define exactly what “supernatural” means? By that I mean beyond mere “not natural” or “that which is outside/external to the natural world”?

    Specifically I’m asking if the supernatural is inclusive or exclusive with regard to aspects of the natural world that we do not (yet, perhaps) understand or recognize in the scientific sense.

    If the supernatural is inclusive, that is that it is outside the natural world as we currently perceive it then this would seem to imply that the mere process of methodological examination can cause something supernatural to become natural.

    If the supernatural is exclusive, that is that it is outside the natural world in an ultimate objective sense, then this seems to lead to the troubling question of “How exactly does one tell the difference between something supernatural and something totally natural but unexplained or not currently examinable methodologically?”

    1. Jesse, good question. Defining “Supernatural” is, of course, contingent the definition of “natural.” Since we are dealing with very big concepts here, a little humility is in order. I’ll try not to overgeneralize and admit limits and mystery where they apply.

      Regarding your uses of “inclusive” and “exclusive.” If I understand you correctly, by inclusive you mean a sense of supernaturalism which is included within naturalism since the “super” just alludes to natural but yet unknown causes. I do not find this to be a helpful sense of “supernaturalism.” Maybe some people mean it that way, but I don’t know anyone who understands it that way.

      I would define supernature in the exclusive way, as referring to causes that are real but do not emanate entirely from nature.

      Before addresing the “troubling question” let me note a definitional trick that we should probably avoid, that is to define nature as “everything that exists,” or some variation on that theme. This does not seem to help in mediating debates between theism and atheism since it would just be saying that if God exists, and (for example) Christianity were true, “nature” includes all that. It is fine to define naturalism as the assertion that nature is all that exists. But that would be best treated as a argued conclusion, not a stipulated definition. Nature refers to the cosmos, the universe, the spatio-temporal or world, or something like that. If those sorts of things are all that exists, then yes nature would be all that exists, but nature REFERS only to those sorts of things, it does not refer to transcendent Gods, angels, demons, a platonic formal realm, heaven and hell, etc. If those sorts of things did exist, nature would not refer to them. Hence nature is not DEFINED as “all that exists,” that would be an implication and not the definition of “nature.” To define nature as “all that exists” would be definitionally circular, stipulating naturalism as true without proving naturalism as true. It does not disprove or discredit any of the supernaturalistic proposals that have traditionally been understood as challenges to naturalism.

      Another definitional trick is put the entire burden on supernaturalists to define supernaturalism without offering a plausible and responsible definition of “natural” first. If one focuses only on how supernaturalists struggle to refine the edges of their definition, the supernaturalist can look like he’s faltering and failing in even understanding his own views. But, unless there is a working sense of “nature” already in place than there is even less clarity over what it means to transcend, surpass, or add to it through “super-nature.”

      I would suggest, then, that the etymology of “super” (i.e., “above/beyond”) and “nature” gives an apt approximation of what supernaturalism is. This refers to the possibility of causes and/or effects which did not originate in nature. Now, theologically there is a sense in which anything but God would count as “nature” in the sense of being “creation,” and that would include whatever angels and demons, heaven and hell, that a religion might postulate. I don’t find that to be a very helpful sense of the term “natural” in these kinds of discussions, so I don’t use it that way here. Here I use “natural” to refer to the cosmos including all the universe and whatever causes and effects which have begun within it.

      As for “mysterious” and “unknown” causes I think you are sniffing out a potential challenge on both sides, be it for the naturalist and the supernaturalist. Take intelligent design for example. The ID theorist considers the seeming appearance of design to be at least some level of evidence for a designer. With watches and washing machines that inference is harmless. But when applied to biology or cosmology, that inference is much more offensive. Why? Both sides see the other side as taking an unwarranted leap of faith. One has faith that the design inference is a sound inference even if it leaves open the possibility of a supernatural cause. The other has faith that evolutionary mechanisms suffice in explaining all of biological nature (and cosmology, in the case of fine tuning arguments) even though only a small portion of biological nature has been shown to thoroughly align within strictly evolutionary causes.

      A mediating point can be made here though. The ID theorist, being open to supernatural causes, is not positing an occult or otherwise magical cause. He is positing an analogous cause, that is, intelligence. It would only be occult/magical/superstitious if we had no sense of what “intelligence” or “designers” were like, or if we had no sense of what “design” is. Instead, we have deep familiarity with intelligence. Or at least, a lot of us do. Supernatural causes are not entirely unlike natural causes, or at least, they don’t have to be. They can be virtually identical to natural causes they just emanate from some realm that is not nature. In this way, the naturalist is guilty of overgeneralization when he supposes that any and all supernatural causes would be “magic” or “fairy dust” or some condescending fiction like that.

      Now I argue elsewhere that analogical argumentation is a valid form of argumentation (see “Science is all Analogies”). So, insofar as the supernaturalist is employing a knowable causal force that is akin to natural forces but not entirely restricted to nature that would be a discernible cause potentially demonstrating something of supernature. Actually getting to that level of defense is pretty tough though, especially since the methodological naturalist can ALWAYS have faith that there will be some sort of natural cause that will eventually be discovered which can explain away some supernatural account. That faith in naturalism is, nevertheless undemonstrated faith. The supernaturalist does not have to fret, at least not yet, over the scores of scientific discoveries that pushed out pre-scientific theories, since there remains many supernatural accounts that are still consistent with what’s discovered, some supernatural theories are entirely untestable by scientific methods, and the entire realm of first-person knowledge and experience which is fundamentally inaccessible to the third-person processes of science. Moreover, science is not simply methodologically naturalistic (MN), and I would argue further that it does not need MN at all, since it can give a high priority to natural causes and still allow for supernatural causes to the extent that natural causes fail to answer. Science is also abductive, arguing by “inference to the best explanation.” Here the science minded individual can be eclectic in seeking to prove his thesis. And wherever that thesis points towards a supernatural cause, science can hand the baton off to the more apt fields of philosophy or theology to start testing various supernatural theories–for example, through tests of logical coherent, internal consistency, historical support, Ockham’s razor, principle of credulity, or any number of methods usefully employed in philosophy and theology.

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