Sye Ten’s debate with Matt Dillahunty a.k.a. the dishonesty of presuppositional arguments.

I just got through watching the debate that Matt Dillahunty did with Sye Ten Bruggencate. During the debate I noticed engaging in a tactic that I’ve dealt with many times in the various conversations and debates I’ve had over they years with fundamentalists, particularly those with a presuppositional bent to their apologetics. The tactic is to respond to any criticism of, or request for an explanation of some apparent problem in, Christianity by asserting that their opponent cannot account for some facet of of reality, usually logic or objective ethical propositions, and since they cannot account for those things then the Christian simply refuses to address the point.

The adage I’ve sometimes heard Christians use to explain this is “sitting in God’s lap to slap his face.” That is, they assert that the only way to account for the very system you are using to criticize a principal in Christianity is Christianity itself. I’ve seen these approach a number of times, including a Calvinist preacher who used to post here regularly a couple of years ago.

This tactic contains two separate claims. The first claim is that Christianity, or in the softer version of the argument a belief in a particular kind of god, provides a reasonable framework to justify belief in things like logic and objective morality. It should be noted that even when the softer version is offered by theists they will then usually follow with an assertion that only in their religion (typically Christianity  or Islam)  will you find a version of god which meets the definitional requirements needed to justify this God’s ability to be the source of these things.

The second claim is that no other systems besides their religion, or again in a softer version, any system that lacks a belief in god cannot ever account for these things in a logically consistent manner. Though again, most will assert that only a very specific type of god meets this requirement. W.L. Craig likes to assert his 7 attributes here.

The biggest problem with both claims is that they are bare assertions. It is taken as obvious by presuppositionalists that god is both necessary and sufficient to explain the existence of things like objective values and logical absolutes. On the first point specifically I think it fails quite simply because of the euthyphro dilemma. If logic was sourced in god then it would not be objective, rather it would be inherently relative. That is, what makes logical absolutes like the law of identity meaningful is that they are axiomatic, they are necessarily true, not only in this universe, but in any possible universe irrespective of any mind that might observe things.

If god willed into existence logical absolutes then it would be possible that he could have willed into existence a universe where the law of identity was not true, if he could not do so then then god is not the origin of the concept. He is, at most, a messenger for a concept that exists irrespective of his existence, and thus the concept of god is no longer needed to account for those things. This is why I’ve often argued that those who argued that god is the source of both morality and reason are the ultimate relativists despite their public eschewing of that term. On top of that problem there is an inherent epistemic problem with theistic morality. How do I determine what god, a supernatural being which I have no direct access to, has happened to declare as truth. I am convinced that, if it is at all possible to determine objective values, both theists and atheists, must do so without appealing to God. It is simply impossible, by definition, to speak of objective meaning coming from a god.

As for the second claim it would be make this post unreasonably long for me to go into a full justification for objective ethics and moral obligations from a secular perspective. I recommend is that you read my blog regularly as I talk about this subject quite often. I also recommend keeping up with Dan Fincke’s series on Empowerment Ethics. I won’t ever claim to address the subject as exhaustively as he has. As far as logic being objective, I personally think logic is axiomatic in nature and requires no external justification. Sye might find this justification unsatisfactory, but I can’t possibly see how one could find “God said so” to be more satisfactory.

Now, people like Sye might say that this isn’t sufficient justification for belief in logic, but understand he is arguing that from his world view, and under his presuppositions God is the ONLY reasonable justification for these things. What they often fail to realize or address is that I am not only under no obligation to accept his presuppositions (he acknowledges they are presuppositions) but actually think those presuppositions are wrong. The interesting thing was that in the debate Sye pretty much acknowledged that he actively refuses to consider the issue from any other perspective because he thinks to even entertain other perspectives as a thought experiment to be sinful.

However, besides the rational problems, I have a secondary problem with this argument when used as a tactic to avoid responding to a question, as Sye used it in the debate. In my opinion It is fundamentally disingenuous. Even if I were to assume that they are correct in their assertions that their system is objective and mine is not, their refusal to respond to a critique makes no sense. This is because when the question is posed I’m asking them to account for the problem from THEIR world view, not mine. It doesn’t actually matter if I can account for morality or logic in my world view, even though I believe I can do those things, because I’m asking them to present a consistent account of things from their system. The obvious reason for this transparent avoidance tactic is that rarely have a logically or ethically consistent response to the critique.

As I pointed out earlier using god as a justification ethics or logic necessarily makes you a relativist. This becomes obvious when we step away from absolute presuppositionalists like Sye and look at apologists like W.L. Craig who actually DO attempt to answer criticism. In these cases we often end up with things like his blatant attempt to justify genocides in the old testament. Of course when he is called out on that, just like Sye, he falls back on presuppositional arguments by claiming no atheists can criticize because only theists have an objective source for ethics. This behavior is not only circular it is designed to prevent the person from ever actually considering the possibility they could be wrong. The only people whose criticisms they will actually consider or respond too are those who already agree with them on the very thing being questioned. We shouldn’t let people off the hook for this sort of behavior. If a person can’t be bothered to actually attempt to answer critiques of their views why should we engage them? One could ask in what sense are they even really engaging in an actual debate?

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