*Originally posted 7 Nov 2015. Updated 10 Dec 2015.
So, How did the debate Go?”
People keep asking me about how the debate went, and each time I’m at a loss for words. Reviewing a whole debate is laborious and dodgy. That debate took a lot of concentrated thought and my experience of it is blurry, hurried, and busy. But I’d say, overall, it was a success. Matt was Matt, with no great surprises in his methodology or claims. And, as expected, he largely if not entirely failed to reconcile my lines of argument with atheism. Meanwhile, his counterclaims/arguments weren’t terribly effective at overwhelming and outweighing my position.
It was 7pm Wednesday night (4 Nov 2015). The venue was Austin Peay University (Clarksville, TN), in Clement auditorium. The auditorium seated about 600 people and was pretty close to full, and might have been full. Some folks were standing in the back, but it was hard to tell because of the blind-spot from the stage lighting. We had a full sized performing stage, complete with curtains, podium, 10 foot (?) projection screen, and two tables. The sponsors for the event were the Philosophy Department, the Philosophy Club and the Secular Humanist Club. I owe personal thanks to Phillip Christie, the president of the Philosophy Club. He did a most all the leg work to make this event possible. He took me out to eat. And he was my ride while I was there. He’s a pretty cool guy too. And his wife was sweet as tea. I was honored to meet the different professors, sponsors, and various contributors who made this event happen. Thank you all!
How was Matt? Matt deserves congratulations for keeping me on my toes, and for offering some intelligent and thoughtful argumentation on his side. He also maintained good composure, high energy, and amiability throughout the debate. He may have a snarky and aggressive side–I probably do too–but he has been overall friendly and respectful towards me. I have no complaints regarding his personality and manners. He and I were able to talk at dinner Wednesday night, and again at the airport the next morning. So I have reason to think that wasn’t just an act. He enjoys vigorious dialogue, doesn’t shy away from disagreements, has deep convictions about truth, and yet he can maintain his composure. We may disagree royally, and we might not see eye-to-eye on many issues, but we have had some gracious and entertaining exchanges. Hopefully, the audience could feel a sense of comradery, sincerity, and respect even as we debated.
That said, I have some stiff critiques against his overall case. He himself was witty and respectful, but his arguments-upon further reflection–had some real problems.
First, Matt largely ignored the force of my arguments.
Matt left my main three argument as “drops.” He mentioned them in his rebuttal, but was dismissive and not substantive. Instead of showing my arguments to be invalid or any of my premises false, he instead ignored the premises and just dismissed their conclusions. But that’s not how it works. If you disagree with the argument you need to show how the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises, or that one or more of the premises is flawed. You can’t just ignore the premises and take issue with the conclusion as if I were asking for some blind leap, trusting that conclusion without any supporting argument. In formal debate settings, those drops count as points in favor of my position.
In the debate, I argued that atheists tend to imply supernaturalism even as they propose and argue for atheism. It was a novel tactic as far as I’m aware. The three lines of evidence I utilized were: (1) moral facts, (2) science–and specifically irreducible goal-directed features within the practice of science, and (3) consciousness. Each of these, I argue, point back to a fundamentally non-mechanical set of causes which are categorically distinct from material nature. It’s not like we’re talking about property such as “triangle-shaped,” or “red-colored;” those aren’t hard to account for in material terms. But consciousness, intentional attitudes of “goal-directedness,” and moral “oughtness,” are all distinct categories from mechanistic material nature. Since these are categorically inexplicable according to atheistic naturalism, yet they exist, then atheistic naturalism is false. Hence supernaturalism, by default, is true.
Notice, I didn’t say simply that these lines of evidence are just ‘difficult to explain’ for naturalism and then proceed into an argument from ignorance (as Matt characterized it). I pointed out that naturalism, by all appearances, is committed to a category mistake, proposing that “oughtness” or “aboutness” (for example) are physical properties. These non-physical qualities are logically incompatible with a strictly physical/natural universe, yet they exist, hence there exists more than just this physical/natural universe.
Second, Matt missed the mark when he criticized the different brands of theism for their apparent conflict.
I did not defend Christian theism, or any particular theism specifically, but instead offered evidence towards broad supernaturalism. It is sufficient to falsify naturalism if all those kinds of theism are wrong, yet supernaturalism is still true.
By limiting my case to supernaturalism broadly, I found, as is the case with any debating tactic, that this approach has some strengths and some weaknesses. It can look evasive and non-committal. It can even be interpreted, though it’s a stretch, as a concession that my particular brand of theism (Christianity) is indefensible. But the great strength to this tactic is that I don’t have to defend particular brands of theism—brands which I can readily admit are prone to disagreement. It’s no fault of theology that it’s methods afford only a limited degree of precision or cognitive certainty. Every field of study has it’s own respective degree of precision that can be reasonably expected for that field. We can get very precise and certain knowledge in math and logic, but can’t get as much precision or certainty in practical ethics, or theology, aesthetics, or psychology. As I stated in the debate, it’s the clarification fallacy to fault an argument for failing to achieve some arbitrary level of clarity.
Matt attempted to rebut the “clarification fallacy” but didn’t seem to understand how his rejoinder was still arbitrary. My argued position is indifferent towards the many conflicting god-beliefs, and he hasn’t shown that my position requires any particular committment to a single god-concept. My aim was more simple: falsify atheism, thus verifying theism broadly. I had no aim to mediate the many fickle fueds over particular brands of theism.
Dillahunty’s defense here is something like, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” My response to that position? I offered three lines of extraordinary evidence, literally, since the mechanistic materialistic measures admitted by atheism have only material causes as the “ordinary” evidence whereas I offered three immaterial lines of evidence as proof that atheism/naturalism fail. Hence I offered “extra-ordinary” evidence for the “extra-ordinary” claim of “God exists.”
Third, Dillahunty likes to demand “falsifiable demonstration” of theological claims.
This point isn’t necessarily wrong, but Dillahunty handles it poorly. Dillahunty seems to think that theological claims like “God exists,” must have a comparable level of public demonstration/experimentation/empirical observation as, for example, modern science–before anyone can reasonably believe such a claim. He’s reluctant to commit himself here.
Matt likes to exploit skeptical wiggleroom any time he might be said to “believe” something he might later regret. Whenever I offered alternatives to scientific testing he swatted them away as if that’s fairy tales or bald conjecture. Yet elsewhere, he’s claimed a high view of philosophy–and that would allow some way to “test” a theological claim without submitting to the methodological naturalism normal to modern science. But here he demonstrated a low view of philosophy.
I cited that very debate as an example of epistemically valid, but non-scientific, method of discovery. If debates can happen, and they can lend at least some improved access to truth, then there are other means besides strict science or science-like measures for testing claims related to supernature.
Fourth, Matt’s exclusive/narrow preference for science-like demonstrations constitute a loaded assumption on his part.
He stated it in various ways, and then restated it in more ways, yet he never really defended this positioning regarding a science-like demonstration of God’s existence. If I offered something non-scientific he faulted it for not being rigorous enough for science (though many known things fail to satisfy that criteria). But if I were to use science directly he’d fault me for importing theology into the natural sciences.
Meanwhile, he’d do well to show that his high value for scientific sorts of verification is a legitimate and fair standard of measure for theological claims. I don’t think he’d say this, because he’d immediately recognize how this logic defeats itself. Science deals with natural objects, theology deals with supernatural objects (roughly speaking). Nevertheless, after three different debates with him this sort of “science-way or the highway” thinking certainly seems to be his default operating assumption for testing claims.
Nevertheless, we can respond by saying that different things are known in different degrees and different ways. It’s no fault of theology or philosophy if we come to know about God in ways that aren’t strictly parallel to the methods of modern science. God can be known, for example, through a broad cumulative case method using data from the sciences (such as Big Bang Cosmology, Genetics, Fine tuning, etc.), logical first principles, ethical first principals, Ockham’s razor, self-referential tests (i.e., is X internally consistent?), direct intuition/awareness, inferences from effects to a sufficient causal explanations, etc. etc. Matt might be bothered when we step outside of a strictly naturalistical model of evidentialism, yet he never showed that his strict demands for science-styled evidentialism are suitable or warranted when dealing with a (potentially) supernatural entity.
Fifth, there’s a circular undercurrent to Matt’s case.
Matt has a clever way of demanding evidence for God’s existence yet only allowing natural causes and effects into consideration. In essence, he seems to be more open minded than he really is. Matt is smart enough (at least this time around) to avoid demanding a strictly scientific proof of God’s existence. He acknowledges that methodological naturalism prevents scientists from directly addressing supernatural questions. So when he asks for a falsifiable method of testing claims like “God exists,” it sounds like he’s being fair and rigorous in his skepticism. But the trick is, he doesn’t admit any supernaturalistic alternatives as potentially valid causal accounts. In our past debate, he extended a batch dismissal of the many billions of supernaturalists. His justification? Well, billions of people can be wrong. Well, that’s true, billions of people might be wrong. But why should we assume that they are wrong? Strictly logical possibility is the weakest evidence of actuality. Meanwhile, we’d consider it a pretty powerful line of evidence if billions of people agreed on something else. So why dismiss that testimonial evidence so casually here, on the subject of God’s existence? Matt is inconsistent here. He demands we offer evidence, but when we offer evidence he dismisses it. His rubric for evaluating evidence is so stilted towards naturalism that only naturalistic accounts are allowed as valid evidence.
Sixth, Matt seems to ascribe an astronomically low probability to God’s existence
This “low probability” might be justified given some evidence and argument on his part except he asserts that he doesn’t know whether God exists and treats naturalistic explanations as intrinsically more probable. If he doesn’t know whether God exists, then how does he know that God’s existence is so highly unlikely? Matt is clever enough to avoid getting nailed down to this characterization, but after having debated Matt for the third time, it’s quite clear that Matt affirms both claims: “We can’t tell whether God exists” and “There is an astronomically low probability that God exists.” He feigns an open-minded sort of negative atheism (“lacking theism), but underneath that surface is a committed positive atheist (“There is no God”). He enjoys the tactical benefit of having “No burden of proof” (negative atheism has no burden of proof since it’s not making an existential claim). But he believes/presumes knowledge that God does not exist. He tries to parse these two positions out in terms of “belief” versus “knowledge.” There’s a popular level distinction between “gnostic/agnostic” (knowing whether God exists) and “theistic/atheistic (not/believing God exists) but this nomenclature is novel, modern, and is confused in its terms. People who follow that nomenclature will thoroughly confuse themselves if they read that terminology into philosophy and religious journal articles, or into research level books which treat Gnostics as an (originally) 2nd century pseudo-christian cult. Meanwhile, agnosticism was coined in the 19th century and refers to the lack of justified/warranted/reasonable true belief in God’s existence. That lack of knowledge about God always entailed lack of belief in God. Likewise, lack of belief in God always entails lacking knowledge that God exists. Matt likes to assume an extremely low probability for God’s existence so that he can trump it, in turn, by ascribing a higher probability to even the most absurd naturalistic account. Using this tactic, Matt can rest easy and unchallenged. So long as any unlikely or absurd naturalistic alternative can be mustered, supernaturalism loses every argument every time.
Seventh, Matt errs in saying, “I may not know, but neither do you.”
Matt employs a rhetorically powerful but quite sincere statement about how he’s not claiming to know a lot about the certain ultimate/grand-scale/important issues like the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of mind, and so on. This tactic is rhetorically powerful because it’s honest, humble, and winsome. But his typical follow-up is that, “I may not know, but neither do you.” Here Matt commits an epistemic error. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that we both are ignorant about how the world began. If Matt doesn’t know what kind of cause could have generated the universe then he faces a boundary problem. The limits of our knowledge can be thought of as a boundary. If we don’t know what’s on the other side, beyond our knowledge, then we can’t knowingly tell someone else they are right or wrong in their claims about the same mysterious beyond. Matt says he doesn’t know what started the universe; I claim to know. He’s admitted ignorance about that realm so he cannot be, at the same time, looking knowingly into that mysterious beyond to determine that I’m wrong about it. If he doesn’t know, then he doesn’t know whether I’m right or wrong about it. This boundary problem has a potential “escape route.” But I’ll leave it for Matt to discover. So far, he doesn’t seem to know where the escape hatch is for this problem.
Eighth, my opening statement directly rebutted his most repeated claim.
Matt tried, several times, to claim that I have no reliable falsifiable method of testing supernatural claims. Oddly enough, my opening statement was just that: a falsifiable argument for supernaturlaism. I pointed out phenomena readily granted by atheists but which are categorically distinct from the entire set of natural causes and effects. Since naturalism lacks any categorical access to such phenomena, yet these things exist, then atheistic naturalism is false. Conversely, supernaturalism is true. This argument is philosophical, proceeding by a cumulative case of ideas implicit and explicit. It requires little in the way of theology, and can be falsified if atheists could offer some way to bridge from strictly natural causes into the (apparently) immaterial categories of mind, teleology, and moral oughtness. Perhaps he does not know how the mature and well-worn landscape of naturalistic atheism entails direct challenges to these readily apparent phenomena: hence the existence of things like nihilism, absurdism, and eliminative materialism. If he could show these sorts of options to be somehow academically viable then he could falsify my claim. But it is not my job to point out to him where he could attack my argument. It’s his job to find that out. Meanwhile, he offered no alternative account from nature that could show that such phenomena (as mind, purpose, and moral facts) is even possible in naturalism. He rested content assuming that such things were not only possible, not only likely, not only plausible but were indeed actual. Yet he offered nothing in the way of demonstration so that the audience and I could responsibly agree with him there.
Ninth, Matt’s opening statement redoubled his straw-man conception of theism.
Matt’s characterization of theism literally included Santa Clause, Fairies, Sasquatch, and Alien Abductions. That stuff might sound smart when preaching to choirs of internet atheists and amateur skeptics but it’s childish and silly when stated in formal debate. In serious conversations within metaphysics, epistemology, philosophical theology, and so on those sort of references are a distraction from serious theological debate. By “going there” Matt seems insincere and/or unfamiliar with the substantial academic work surrounding the God-concept. Maybe Matt has studied extensively the works of Plantinga, Anselm, Craig, Aquinas, Augustine, or Swinburne. But his methods and evidence in this debate didn’t show it. There are mature atheistic critiques of theism; but Matt did no such thing Wednesday night. It seems that Matt does not take the concept of God seriously. At one point he admitted as much so he could make a rhetorical point. He said, “I don’t take the concept of God very seriously because I previously took it seriously for too long.” To be precise here, I don’t doubt that Dillahunty sincerely adhered to Christian theism in his earlier years and he sincerely tried to be a good Christian, and he sincerely tried to defend the Christian faith in years past. (He admits these events in his deconversion testimony). But, he does not seem to have taken the concept of God seriously if the God of his (former) Christian faith can be debunked in the same batch dismissal with Santa Clause, fairies, Sasquatch, and alien abductions.
Tenth, Matt takes great issue with Divine Hiddenness but seemed unable or unwilling to answer my rebuttal here.
Perhaps the strongest point of the night for Matt–not counting rhetorical barbs and witty comebacks (which have audience appeal)–was his emphasis on Divine Hiddenness. If God exists why isn’t he more obvious? Fortunately, I saw this attack coming beforehand. Matt often says that an invisible God is indistinguishable from a non-existent God. And He’s used this tactical claim in most every public debate (on God’s existence). I responded with this (“Why Isn’t God More Obvious?”). In short, God can be plenty obvious but we people are so thick or so unwilling that God’s hiddennes is either justified or it’s not a serious threat to theism. Now Matt’s response is a variety of the problem of evil: God is to blame if He’s allowed such freedom and latitude in the created order to where people or animals can endure an apparent distance/ignorance from God. I won’t vent on that issue here; you can hear what I have to say about that here. In brief, he’d need to show that the vast riches of free-will, character-building, or other greater goods are not enough added-value to justify God’s felt/epistemic distance from man. Matt, of course, made no such case.
Eleventh, Matt largely declined the “con” position and opted for a middle ground of negative-atheism.
To be fair, Matt eventually adjusted/clarified his position so that he did, at least partly, direct his case towards the negative/con position in the debate, that is, he eventually shifted to a “No” answer to the debate prompt: “Does God exist?” But that was only after I challenged him on this point, and asked him to clarify what exactly he was arguing for. Earlier, he tried to say that theism has the sole burden of proof in this debate. That’s a classic tactic of negative atheists (i.e., “lacking theism) in informal discourse. But in formal debate, that’s not how it works. In formal debate, it’s critically important that the question/thesis be sufficiently and clearly divided enough to where there is a “pro” and a “con” position. A straightforward, “Yes/no” question is one of the most common ways to frame a debate this way. Matt largely refused to shoulder any burden of proof as it concerns this debate.
In formal debate, the two sides divide as (1)”Yes/Pro” and (2) “No/Con.” If he preferred to argue for a third option: “Maybe God exists, but it’s yet unknown” then he should have clarified that before the debate and we could have structured the debate topic and question for that purpose. But the agreed-upon topic of this debate is: “Does God exist.” With this topic, both sides are supposed to mount a case for their position and against the opponent’s position. That is, they construct their own case and deconstruct their opponent’s case. Matt almost exclusively aimed at deconstructing my case and offered next to nothing as constructive evidence for atheism. Now my memory might be failing me, but I don’t remember any particular point he made which serves as constructive evidence for atheism. I’m assuming, for the sake of argument, that he intended some of his claims to function both for his side and against my side, but I honestly don’t recall anything from Matt’s side except attacks on theism–i.e., deconstructions. The problem with that approach is that it’s sort of like playing all defense and no offense. I only need one point to win if the other team refuses to shoot the ball. In this case, there only needs to be some remote possibility that my evidence/argument is valid and I win because he stayed entirely on defense.
Overall, it remains clear that the brand of atheism put forward in the debate was overall reactionary, inconsistent, and presumptuous. Where Matt had an opportunity to offer alternative explanations for my lines of evidence, he instead countered with a trumped up version of “Nuh uh.” His case lacked compelling, clear accounts for my evidence. He generally declined any positive case for atheism. Meanwhile, he put forward an amateur conception of theism, a veritable strawman, and beat that strawman senseless. While Matt was talking pejoratively about pinata gods, I was attempting more serious business offering sufficient explanations for (1) moral facts, (2) science, and (3) mind where he lacked any such explanation. Effectively he testified to the paucity of atheistic explanation. Any adolescent can criticize Santa God and rightly they should. He and I can join together in swatting down those garish fictions which only children would believe. But the difference is that after that pinata party. I moved on to investigate serious forms of god-belief and he seemed content to bash at a fallen pinata.
Bear in mind, that I’m not saying theism is an “easy” position. It merits serious investigation, and faces some stiff challenges. But it seems more clear to me after this debate that that atheism is a barren lifeless landscape of negations. The only way to survive in that desert is to smuggle in supplies from outside. Atheists need tools from supernaturalism to even construct a case for atheism.