February 24, 2009

Presuppositionalism, part 2 (or: The Great Matt Dillahunty vs. Matt Slick Debate)

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, Worldview tagged , , , , at 11:37 am by Andrew

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.


  1. Stephanie said,

    Matt Slick is continuing to emphasize that all non-material things are conceptual. It seems like a false dichotomy, but he doesn’t get that.

  2. BobbyEarle said,

    Hey, Andrew…

    I surfed over from Pharyngula , right in the middle of the Comfort/Dawkins
    debate thread. I would have to agree that Matt D. is a perfect candidate to go
    against banana boy. I have not had the pleasure of hearing Dawkins in a debate setting, so I can’t really comment on his debating ability, but Matt seems to have the right stuff.

    Not that it would take a whole lot of skill to completely own Comfort. Thanks for the link, you have a great site!

  3. Andrew said,

    Thanks! I have not seen Dawkins in a formal “debate” setting, but if you do a little digging on Youtube and elsewhere you can find clips of him lecturing on conversational topics.

    I think someone would have to be very, very prepared for Ray Comfort in a debate, because (a) he spews a high volume of nonsense, and (b) he’s been rehearsing his schtick for decades. So I would imagine that a Dawkins-Comfort debate would go like this:

    Comfort: [holds up his ‘crock-o-duck’ picture] “See, there’s no proof for evolution, because we never see something like this in the fossil record.”

    Dawkins: [patiently explains that a half-crocodile, half-duck monstrosity would falsify evolution, and thus it’s a good thing that we don’t see one in the fossil record]

    Comfort: Right! He’s just conceded there are no transitional forms!

    Dawkins: [patiently explains the well-documented smooth transitions in the fossil record]

    Comfort: [Holds up the crock-o-duck again.] I don’t mean just giving a bird a slightly longer beak, so what, they’re still birds! I want to see a real transitional form. I want to see a watermelon give birth to a marmoset! [quote mines Stephen Jay Gould on the ‘lack of transitional fossils’]

    Dawkins: [kills self]

    You get the point. Even if Dawkins has the patience of a saint, you see the problem: it takes Comfort 5 seconds to say something idiotic, and Dawkins 5 minutes to explain reality, by which point half the audience has forgotten the original bizarre assertion, which Comfort can then re-assert ad nauseum.

  4. Eric said,

    I think Ray Comfort should have to debate this guy on the subject “Is Ray Comfort going to Hell?” Dawkins can moderate.

  5. Anselm said,

    Doesn’t Matt D.’s strategy commit the atheist to support the Platonic objective reality (i.e., outside of spacetime) of things like numbers, logic, etc.? And isn’t that a strange position for a materialist to take (especially if he agrees with Carl Sagan that “the Cosmos is all there is, was or ever will be.” If numbers, etc. exists Platonically, then Sagan’s statement is not true, and the spaceless, timeless, immaterial reality in which theists say God exists is conceded.

    • Gabriel said,

      I think Plato believed that abstractions were material, they were just off in some other part of the universe while we only got to see their shadows. Matt D, on the other hand, was saying that there are at least two noncenceptuals, material things and abstractions.

  6. […] in Answering Apologists, Atheism, Worldview at 3:00 pm by Andrew On a previous thread, commenter Anselm (probably not that Anselm, unfortunately) asks: Doesn’t Matt D.’s strategy […]

  7. Kris Rhodes said,

    I feel a little uncomfortable saying what I’m about to say, because in general I try to encourage civility in debates like this. What I’m about to say comes close to being uncivil.

    Anyway, here it is.

    I can not figure out why you guys are taking Matt Slick seriously. I have not found him to be able to follow a philosophical argument even through one single logical step.

    I have discussed the TAG with him before (unfortunately the thread seems to have been removed from his discussion forum since then) and was appalled by his lack of comprehension, and his inability, basically, even to put two and two together so to speak.

    I actually have a long history with the guy–I used to post to his discussion forums daily years ago before I got serious about academic Philosophy. (I was, and continue to be, a Wishy Washy Liberal Protestant Universalist, so I was definitely on his shit list despite my being a Christian.) So my comments maybe should be read with that in mind. Still, it seems clear to me from reading a few of his posts on his discussion boards that his influence on debate is mostly poisonous.

    I suppose there’s something to be said for setting a good example, exemplifying good arguments for the sake of the audience of the debate. But aren’t there far better debate opponents?

    Slick’s boards used to be fairly diverse, so at least one could be confident one was reaching a large audience of reasonable people when participating in discussions with him. But in the last several years, his boards have lost that diversity. There remain a few die-hard rational types, but the board is populated almost entirely by dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalists. I have come to see no value in discussing things with these guys. What value do you guys see in it?

  8. Michael said,

    Hey Kris, when you say you have discussed TAG with Slick before, do you have a thread you can point us to? Do you think there’s a “better” case for TAG than the one Slick makes?

  9. Kris Rhodes said,

    Sorry, like I said, the thread containing my discussion with Matt was removed from his discussion boards some time later.

    I’m talking to one of his board’s admins to see if the thread can somehow be resurrected, but it’s not looking likely.

    As for a better case for the TAG, I don’t know if there is one. However, I’m not really sure that Matt’s TAG is the same argument as others that get called TAGs around the internet. The traditional TAGs argue that reasoning contradicts itself unless God is somehow at its foundation. Matt’s TAG argues that the absolute truth of logical truths can’t be explained unless God exists. The two arguments seem to be in the same conceptual neighborhood in some sense, but they’re really two substantially different arguments. I don’t know specifically of other writers who have offered Matt Slick style TAGs.


  10. Andrew said,


    Thank you very much for your comments and the spirit in which they’ve been offered. I have no prior experience with Matt Slick other than his two calls to the Atheist Experience TV show, which I listen to via podcast (and which I would wholeheartedly recommend, even to my Christian readers).

    I posted this analysis because it seemed to me that Matt Slick gave a competent (if overly aggressive) defense of his argument; Slick also apparently has his own radio show, website, etc. — so it seemed as though he was a “fair” target and not just a random strawman.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not really a big fan of formal debates as dialogue — they can be immensely entertaining as a form of cheerleading for your side (and I’ll admit to that as a guilty pleasure!), but they don’t really tend to engage serious and congenial discussion or change minds.

    I agree with you that Matt Slick’s TAG is a little weird, which is why I grouped it under the general heading of presuppositionalist arguments.

    Thanks again, and I hope you enjoy the site.


  11. Jason Callope said,

    Why would Matt Slick have to defend TAG in the first place if God actually exsisted?

  12. Cameron said,


    The Christian, from the angle of TAG, is actually more on the offense I’d say. We simply believe that Matt D is fulfilling Rom 1:18-20 and supressing the truth in unrighteousness. It’s like telling someone that they’re breathing in order to have the conversation, yet no matter what you say they still deny that they’re breathing. It’s not so much that the person is defending “breathing”, but simply trying to point it out. You can’t point out what people don’t want to accept.

    Many non-Christians and so called atheists do and have agreed that TAG is in favor of Christianity.

    Also, I called into the Atheist Experience once and they are quick to want to hang up on people who actually have thoughtful arguments against them.

  13. Cameron said,


    It’s years later, but if you’re still out there, I find myself agreeing with your points. I love Slick as a fellow brother in Christ, yet have found many times when I thought his arguments were incomplete or off. When he interviewed the author of the Shack I was like “come on, just ask him why he wrote a book that’s un-Biblical”.

    Also, many people argue TAG in different ways or emphasize different aspects of it. I’ve even been willing to challenge other Christains who use TAG, because I think there are some false assumptions about the argument they carry around. Sometimes people get so used to arguing something a certain way that when it’s finally challenged in a good way they end up repeating themselves or not really grasping your argument.

  14. JD said,

    Cameron, you should give the Atheist Experience a call again. If you actually have a thoughtful argument they would love to hear it. The only people they hang up on are Poes pretending to be Christians.

  15. Cameron said,

    I think Matt should do a formal debate, or have a dialogue with a moderator, instead of being able to cut people off when he wants, and then strawman them after they hang up or get hanged up on. I don’t see the point to calling in to that kind of situation. It doesn’t do anyone any good.

    It’s also frusterating when Matt D. does the same thing that Slick sometimes does – misses the argument of the caller.

  16. Todd said,

    I agree with JD, I think if you have a good thought-out argument that you can present clearly they will not hang-up on you. I have definitely seem them hang-up a little quicker than I would have expected but even still it is almost always after the caller resorted to preaching, jumping all over the place, or totally denying what Biblical scholars believe about the origins of the Bible.
    Please reconsider and call in again!

  17. StOoPiD MoNkEy said,

    Guys, you can actually find links on you tube to Matt D. debates. And actually, he is participating in debates as we speak. I think they are on morality.

  18. Todd said,

    Hello again. Thought I would just mention that the first caller on this past weeks episode of the the Atheist Experience (episode 738) named Andrew is in my mind a good example of how the conversation between Theists and Atheists just break down.
    I would love to have a Theist listen to it and help me understand where Matt and Jeff went wrong. In my mind the caller tried his best to clearly explain his position but when pressed on it, he devolved into using terms like “consistent argument” (which he used over and over again even after it was shown to be a fallacy) or answered in a way that was completely incoherent with the question.
    Can a Theist please listen to this call and give me their honest feedback on both sides. I really think this type of review can be enlightening for both sides.
    Here is the link:


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