February 24, 2009
Presuppositionalism, part 2 (or: The Great Matt Dillahunty vs. Matt Slick Debate)
One of the most important things I’m trying to do here on Evaluating Christianity is to engage in an honest dialogue with believers over what we believe and why. I’m not out to win “converts” to atheism; at most, I’m out to win converts to the notion that atheism is reasonable. At the end of the day, I’m not Christopher Hitchens — I don’t need to see theism obliterated from the face of the planet. I’d just like for the theist (and in particular, the Christian) to concede that atheism is a rational response to the world we live in.
That’s why I’ve tried to structure my Summary Case for Atheism as the kind of response I would give you if we were having a beer and a friendly chat. I don’t think the case I present is air-tight; in fact, I hope that it encourages people to raise criticisms and questions.
Now I understand that other people — both theists and atheists — have different objectives. At the extreme opposite end of the spectrum from this blog is presuppositionalism, a school of apologetics built on definitional wordplay, strategic argumentation and deliberate obfuscation. It’s a polysyllabic version of what Greta Christina calls the “Shut Up, That’s Why” school of apologetics. At the end of the day, the presuppositionalist’s goal is to “win” his debate, not listen to what you have to say. (If you don’t believe me, check out this handbook from one particularly obnoxious presuppositionalist.)
So that’s the context for this week’s episode of The Atheist Experience, which featured a continuation of the discussion/debate on presuppositionalism that I talked about last week. I have to say that Matt Dillahunty (the regular host of the Atheist Experience) gave perhaps the most interesting refutation of TAG I have ever heard. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of how I would have approached it, which I think turned out to be the near-optimal strategy. The unorthodox nature of Matt D.’s responses clearly threw Matt Slick (the presuppositionalist apologist) off of his game such that by the end of the 48-minute exchange, Slick was left with nothing more than belligerently repeating a nonsense question. Here’s my take:
1. Matt D.’s unconventional strategy began by first conceding the premises of TAG; namely, that logical absolutes (LA) are transcendental, universal, and absolute. I think this was strategically very smart, because Slick is obviously prepared for opponents who challenge the premise; his response is to sarcastically blurt out a string of non-sequiturs and then insist that he’s won the debate because you can’t agree on the conventions of logic.
This, of course, is just Slick’s debating trick. The fact that two people agree to the conventions of logic as a prerequisite for a discussion does not prove that those conventions are transcendent or absolute, any more than two people who agree that Bert Blyleven belongs in the Hall of Fame somehow proves that he’s transcendent. (Blyleven’s curveball was good, but it wasn’t that good.) Moreover, logic is plainly not transcendent in that electrons are simultaneously both particles and not-particles, and simultaneously in one place and not in that place — thus violating the law of identity. I set out that argument in my prior post.
But Slick is obviously prepared for this sort of response as well, so I think that Matt D.’s strategy neatly bypassed that section of Slick’s script.
2. Next, Matt D. pointed out the equivocation between Logical Absolutes (LAs), which he conceded are absolute and transcendent, and the application of those LAs in human logic, which is not. Human logic, Matt D. argued, is contingent on the existence of a mind to apply the LAs.
3. Then — and this was the key to the debate — Matt D. demonstrated that Premise 6.A of Matt Slick’s TAG deliberately palmed a card by using the word “logic” in place of the phrase “Logical Absolutes.” In doing so, Slick conflated the ontology of the Logical Absolutes themselves with the application of those LAs by humans, thus artificially ascribing a characteristic to human reason (transcendence) that by itself would be internally contradictory.
4. In his own writeup of the “debate,” Slick still either doesn’t understand or pretends not to understand this distinction. Instead (as you’ll see from the link), his counterargument is to set up a false dichotomy between “physical” and “conceptual” and then claim that anything that is non-physical is by definition conceptual, and therefore contingent on some mind.
Matt D. answered this objection at the beginning of the show by calling this out as a false dichotomy and pointing out at least a third possibility: abstractions. For example — this is mine, not Matt D’s, but is adapted from the show — “five” exists as a concept in my mind when I picture five puppies and is thus a concept. In a hypothetical parallel universe identical to our own but with no minds, there can be no “idea” of “five puppies,” because there are no minds capable of generating such an idea.
But — and this is the point Matt D. made forcefully, and Matt Slick simply ignores — in such a universe, “five” still exists as an abstraction. Otherwise, when one puppy runs up to a group of four other puppies in that alternate universe, Matt Slick must believe that could be a pack of eighty-seven billion puppies if there are no minds around to “enforce” the fact that 1 + 4 = 5. That’s a strange argument, to say the least.
Another commenter on The Atheist Experience blog points out that under Slick’s dichotomy, God himself is only a concept, because he’s not physical!
Since logical absolutes, by Slick’s own definition, exist independent of any mind, they provide no evidence for God. Indeed, as Slick concedes early on in the broadcast, God himself cannot make a square circle or make A equal not A, so logical absolutes constrain God. I thus conclude that TAG fails.