Paul P. Mealing

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Friday, 26 June 2015

Some ruminations on a debate about the existence of God

I came across this debate on YouTube between Sye Ten Bruggencate and Matt Dillahunty (31 May 2014): “Is it Reasonable to Believe that God Exists?” I’ve come across Sye before and even argued with him on Stephen Law’s blog (or attempted to) a few years back; probably more than a few years, actually. He’s a self-described presuppositionist and a member of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, who lives in Ontario, while Matt is a former Christian and now hosts a cable TV show, The Atheist Experience, based in Austin, Texas.

The debate is close to 2 hrs, including questions from the audience, which is followed by the participants’ ‘summing up’. I watched the entire debate partly because I was curious how Matt would handle Sye, who’s debating style is to make unsupported assertions then try and put the burden of proof, or disproof, onto his opponent. To give an example from my own experience: he once asked me to provide evidence that God had not made himself manifest to humankind (I’m paraphrasing from memory). I said I can’t provide evidence of something that didn’t happen, not happening. And his response was that it was my assertion therefore I had to prove it.

I was impressed by Matt’s temperament as well as his arguments, where he was very careful and precise whilst not being difficult to follow, even though he spoke quickly to ensure he stayed within the time limits imposed. Both of them were well prepared and had obviously researched each other’s positions. Sye cleverly used video excerpts of Matt to not only pre-empt Matt’s arguments but to support his own counter-arguments. Matt used humour in combination with rigid logic and precise language.

Sye’s argument was simplistic in the extreme: “It’s reasonable to believe that which is true; it’s true that God exists; therefore it’s reasonable to believe that God exists.” In his summing up Matt called it ‘kindergarten theology’ and ‘kindergarten philosophy’.

One of Sye’s key points of argument (which I’ve seen him use before) is to claim that his opponent can only argue from his (Sye’s) world view, and his world view is provided by God. He argues that any other world view is ‘absurd’, and in Matt’s case, Matt could, by his own admission, be a ‘brain in a vat’. However, Matt clarifies this by saying that he doesn’t believe he’s a brain in a vat, but it’s a well known philosophical conundrum that this can’t be proven. I first came across this in Stephen Law’s Philosopher’s Gym about 12 years ago, before I discovered him on his blog. In the debate, this logically led to a discussion on solipsism, which, Matt argued, can’t be proved to be false.

I’ve discussed this before, and, whilst all of us believe that everyone else we meet is not a figment of our imagination, there is one situation, which we have all experienced, where this is actually true. Neither Sye nor Matt mentioned this but that situation is a dream. A dream is solipsistic. So how do we know that we’re not in a dream. Because we have shared memories when we’re not in a dream. If I have a dream that includes someone I know, then when I next meet them in real life, they have no memory of that interaction, only I do. So unless one’s entire life is a dream then solipsism is a non sequitur if we have shared experiences that we can both remember.

One of the things that came out of this debate for me, and which Matt touched on briefly, is that if you have no common ground to begin with then you really can’t debate a subject. Specifically, Matt pointed out that he and Sye had different definitions of truth, which logically means that they would never be able to agree on whether something was true or not. I realised that it would be pointless for me to engage in an argument with someone whose entire world view is premised on fiction: a book of mythological stories. Sye argues that everyone knows that God exists, including babies (when Matt specifically asked him). No one can argue with that and Sye knows it, which is why he claims he’s unbeatable when it comes to arguments about the existence of God.

Matt argues that knowledge is a subset of beliefs, which I hadn’t considered before, and truth is based on evidence. Sye responded that evidence is something you take into a court and you become the judge but you can’t judge God. But if you don’t believe in God then that argument is irrelevant and without a God who actually intervenes in the assessment, one must use one’s own intellect to judge the evidence, which is what we all do all the time otherwise we wouldn’t be able to live.

So Sye’s basis for truth is God, which is revealed in scripture, and my basis for objective truth is mathematics, so we couldn’t be further apart. Sye would argue that I need his world view to believe that, because mathematics wouldn’t exist without God.  However, I would argue that mathematics trumps God because even God can’t change a prime number to a non-prime number or vice versa or change the value of Pi or make 2 + 2 = 5.  If Sye was to respond that God is mathematics then I might agree with him, but that has nothing to do with scripture.

Addendum: I've given this some more thought, plus I've watched the entire debate again. I believe I can challenge Sye's world view. Notice I say 'challenge' because that's the best one can do; I don't believe I can get him to change his world view any more than I believe he could get me to change mine.

Just to clarify my own position, I'm not anti-theist per se (as I've explained elsewhere); I believe God is something that people find within themselves, but that's another argument for another time.

My challenge is to do with my last paragraph of my original post, because I believe that mathematics gives us the only transcendental truths we know, whilst acknowledging that not everyone agrees with that position. By transcendental, I mean that mathematical truths exist independently of the human mind and even the universe. As someone once joked: If tomorrow the universe ceased to exist, the only part of science one could continue to do would be mathematics (that’s me paraphrasing John Barrow quoting Dave Rusin). I've discussed this position elsewhere.

My challenge to Sye is that mathematics even transcends God, for the reasons I pointed out in that closing paragraph. God can't change mathematics any more than we can: he can't make 2 + 2 = 5, amongst even more esoteric mathematical concepts like changing primes. If God can't change them, then logically they are independent of God. So I have a means of finding 'truths' that transcend God, therefore I don't need God in order for them to be true. What's more, mathematics provides 'truths' that anyone with the requisite intellectual ability can discover, without reference to any religious scripture or any divine revelation.


Gary said...

Enjoyed your post. Debating with presuppositionalists is easily the most frustrating and pointless thing I have ever done. You have to be on your toes all the time to watch for the sudden shifting of the burden of truth onto you, even when it's them making the claim. I was once challenged by a presuppositionalist(Tommy)to produce any statement that I could be sure was true that didn't require the existence of God to be true. I had time to think about it and replied:

"Tommy is not self-identical"

To which he replied:

"Who is Tommy? What is Tommy? What is self-identical? Prove your statement with empirical scientific evidence. When your paper is done and peer-reviewed, let me know."

So I tried:

“Existence is not synonymous with non-existence”

To which he replied:

"In my new language they actually are."

Eventually I said:

"I am not the God that you, do you agree or disagree with that statement?"

It was the only time I was able to stop him in his tracks and make him have to think what his next move would be.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Gary,

As I point out in my post, it's impossible to argue with someone if there is no common ground. So arguing with a 'new language' axiomatically means that any reasonable form of discourse is impossible. When a negative is equal to its positive then the person can't be taken seriously.

Glad you enjoyed the post. I tried to get Matt to read it but he just sent me links to his stuff.

Regards, Paul.