Thursday, July 23, 2015

Debate Review: Matt Dillahunty vs. Blake Giunta

After hearing that Matt Dillahunty was debating Blake Giunta, I was excited to see a YouTube video  of the debate go up and had it on as background for work this morning. 

I happen to like Matt and I actually like when I’ve heard Blake on various atheist podcasts, like Dogma Debate. He certainly comes off far better than the majority of popular apologists I’m familiar with.

I was prodded from my Blog/Video slumber to put something up for this debate, so here we go.  Let’s start with Blake’s case.


Blake starts off saying he’s going to use a Bayesian method to try and argue that belief in a god is more reasonable than not.   I’m not an expert on Bayes, but I do know that this is very likely going to be moderately useless in this context. A whole lot of the problem with using Bayes for the topic of “does the god of classical theism exist” is going to boil down very much into where one starts with subjective prior’s.  

There’s a pattern I’ve noticed with people who like to use Bayesian approaches to argue for or against god’s existence and that they get to make quite a show of it.  They can be “very generous” in assessing the prior probabilities of their opponents position, but then will run that position through a gauntlet of things it needs in order to explain some piece of data, and then due to the multiplication involved, the number they started with, no matter what it is, will end up extremely low.

This isn’t so much an indictment against Bayes Theorem, it’s got it’s domain of applicability. It just seems like it can be abused when applied to grand metaphysical topics, which I’m thinking is just a problem with grand metaphysical topics in general and not so much Bayes.  

My point here is that even if Blake’s arguments work, we can still acknowledge that he has evidence for god’s existence and still be atheists, because we can construct our own sets of arguments along the same lines and then find the balance of the arguments leans towards atheism. Likewise the theist will end up on theism, and we’re left either arguing about subjective prior’s or debating which metaphysical view seems more likely for whatever argument Bayes is being applied to.  

Basically, I’m a little skeptical that taking the Bayesian approach in the context of a debate is going to add much of anything other than letting the presenter make a show with numbers that favors their side. 

Necessity & S5 Modal Logic

Blake mentions S5 and necessary beings, talking about the intrinsic probability of god before looking at the evidence. Since he’s using a Bayesian approach, Blake is trying to up the prior probability of god’s existence. 

Unlike Matt, I’m generally accepting of S5 modal logic, though since I’m not an expert on logics in general, that shouldn’t amount to much of an endorsement.  From my understanding though, it’s generally accepted, though what significance we can derive from S5 is controversial since it impinges on very contentious topics like modal realism. 

Blake then gives a kind of form of the ontological argument in that theists understand god to be a necessary being, and if god possibly exists, then god necessarily exists, ala S5. I have a video on the modal ontological argument here, however I wish I had more clearly stated the best objection to the MOA in that video.

The biggest problem, one that is admitted by Alvin Plantinga, the originator of the MOA, is that it just as easily proves that the god of classical theism necessarily does not exist.  That is to say that if it’s possible that a maximally great being does not exist, then it follows that such a being necessarily doesn’t exist.

Necessity is a funny property in this way. Atheists don’t have a problem with “necessity”, we have a problem saying the “necessary something” happens to be the god of classical theism.  For theists, “necessary” is just part of the conjunction of otherwise contingent facts baked into their definition of god as the greatest possible being (ie. omniscience, omnipotence, omni-benevolence, etc).  The thing is, we can have a “necessary” something that just doesn’t have the other properties attributed to god defined as Blake has it.

In fact the most useful definitions of naturalism vs supernaturalism draws the distinction in this way:

  • Naturalism: The necessary something is physical stuff.
  • Supernaturalism: The necessary something is mental stuff. 

In either case there’s something “necessary” there, and that “necessary something” is going to have a bunch of contingent qualities that only become necessary because they’re all sort of joined together by an AND function. 

The Ontological and Cosmological Arguments have a Kid

From here Blake goes on to make an argument that is like a combination of the ontological, Kalam, and Leibnitzian cosmological arguments. It’s actually kind of novel, but it’s going to have some issues.

It hinges on the idea it’s possible that the first contingent thing is caused to exist.  From there Blake will derive that something necessary must have been the cause and he then builds on to how it must have been a mind with free will that caused the contingent thing.

The first problem that leapt at me is that it’s also possible that the first contingent thing does not have a cause, and exists as a brute fact – that is something that has no further explanation, but is not necessary.  In fact if we study things about god, we’ll find that there are number of brute facts built into god’s necessary nature (ie. that it is loving, etc).

But let’s put all this aside.  What I found interesting is how Blake tries to go from a necessary thing to a personal god:

Blake brings up the question that if the first contingent thing is caused by a necessary thing, then how is it that the first contingent thing isn’t itself actually a necessary thing?  His answer is a contra-causal free will, or a libertarian free will. He then ties the idea of this kind of free will to something that exists only in persons, and he uses the idea that the big-bang is our “first contingent thing” to entail that there is a “unembodied person” outside of space and time that has this kind of causal power.
There are a few rather large problems here. First, the kind of free will that Blake is discussing, libertarian free will, has no coherent definition of it in contemporary philosophy.  It’s not defensible, it’s just alluded to as something we should think exists because of either intuitions or because without it we can’t have moral responsibility. 

Second, there are going to be problems with the idea that the “first contingent thing”, if caused by a “necessary entity” is itself non-contingent, if we want to jump from this concept to theism. It’s met with something philosopher Dan Linford has presented here as the Cosmological Euthyphro Dilemma:

1.)  If God’s reasons for creating the universe came from within Herself, then God did not create the universe of Her free-will. After all, God’s essence is necessarily the way that it is and is unalterable. Thus, any sort of reasons from within God are necessarily the case. God could not have chosen to do otherwise. Worse, not only would God not have free-will, but the universe would not be contingent after all (God exists in every possible world and, since God possesses the same reasons at every possible world, would create the same universe at every possible world — therefore, the universe is not contingent; this contradicts a premise in the argument from contingency).
2.)    But now suppose that there were no reasons originating from within God for creating the universe. In this case, there is no where for such reasons to come from. God may have free-will to create the universe, but would be acting arbitrarily and capriciously.

The short of it is that the problem of a “first contingent thing” being caused by a “necessary entity” not ending up itself as a necessary thing is going to be as much of a problem for the theist as it would be for any atheist who thinks there’s some “necessarily existing stuff” like whatever quantum mechanics describes.

Finally, the last problem Blake is going to face is the idea of a non-temporal person.  Matt brings up this problem in the debate, and it’s worth going into.  This is something I go into some detail on in my last response to William Lane Craig, and it’s also something Dan Linford mentions in his article.

Cosmological Problems

Basically, by tying in the different kinds of cosmological arguments together into the argument he presented, I believe Blake is just as susceptible to the standard objections to those arguments as he would be if he had just presented the classic Kalam or Leibnitzian cosmological argument.  Suffice it to say, atheists have quite a few options open to us in terms of how we think about time and resolve the paradoxes that come up from there, and our own takes on necessity and contingency that do not logically entail a god must exist or is more likely to exist.

The Moral Arena

Blake’s next argument is a pretty new one, at least in that I’ve only seen it in recent years.  It’s the idea that a moral arena existing at all, regardless of whether or not moral realism is true or not, is evidence that a god exists.

The idea is that if we compare and contrast the ideas of naturalism vs. theism, on theism we’re going to be assuming some kind of moral agent already exists. It’s very likely in that if a god was to create beings, they’d be moral beings.  Whereas on naturalism, there’s just “stuff” that exists, and so we have to run the gamut of getting to life existing, and then on top of that we need to be able to have the kind of life that has a complex enough brain to be considered a moral agent.

Here Blake manages to then combine the moral argument into one with facets of the design argument in order to drive down how unlikely it is that even life exists.

There are a few responses here.

First and foremost is that we can easily grant that “on theism” the moral arena is more likely simply because theism assumes a moral dimension of some kind exists where as “on naturalism” it doesn’t.
However, as Matt alluded to in the debate, Blake has to go through the same gauntlet of possibilities of embodied agents existing even on theism.  This can be morphed into its own problem for theism and be evidence for naturalism.

That is the idea that “embodied” agents exist, or that physical stuff at all exists is actually evidence for naturalism over theism, in much the same way that the moral arena is evidence for theism over naturalism.

Blake makes some allusions to the idea that we’d need bodies in order to maximize our moral agency and development, but this doesn’t make much sense.  God certainly doesn’t need a body in order to maximize his moral agency, and since when is development even something to be considered necessary? One must wonder if the angels and demons (before their fall) had to have bodies, and then does that mean that heaven exists inside a space-time?  Indeed, we can think of ourselves as purely mental beings that interact with each other  directly through some mental substrate and thus things like mental pain and capacities for sin, etc still exist just as well as they do in a physical world.
So it’s certainly a bit of a step to say that we should expect to see physically embodied agents as likely on theism vs. naturalism.

Now what’s worse for Blake’s specific argument is that given evolution, game theorists have constructed models that show a form of morality will inherently develop for any kind of biological species that could remotely be considered a moral agent, if one were to develop.   

So at this point Blake’s moral arena argument really does boil down into a form of the design argument in order to try and hold its water, and there’s quite a bit to be said against the design argument.

Finally, Blake made a rather outrageous claim about minds and brains in this argument, basically saying that on atheism we’d think that brains would work the same regardless of whether or not there’s a “mind” there, which is just question begging.  This is like taking a hacksaw to the nuanced theories of mind that are available to an atheist, or just denying superveniance of the mind on the brain.

Final Criticisms of Blake’s Case

A popular adage is that "The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it."

I’m sure a theist would just as likely level that charge against atheistic arguments that start simple but have a host of assumptions on complex and controversial topics.  One of the things I found most annoying about Blake’s case is that he managed to combine some otherwise distinct arguments and then present us with a chimera of sorts.

The problem here is that he’s compounding issues in a fairly complex (though not invalid!) ways that make unpacking them significantly more complicated in order to try and refute or at least cast doubt on.  IMO, this adds yet another order of magnitude to the atheist’s burden in the debate.  Personally I’m shocked at the amount of digital ink I’ve spilled just partially addressing his arguments.

This certainly seems like a good debate strategy, especially for popular level debates.  To Blake’s credit, he openly acknowledged that he’s throwing more arguments out than Matt could possibly hope to respond to in the debate.

Perhaps it’s just an inevitable side effect of these kinds of debates in general and we end up with the “dueling press conferences” style of debate.  To this organizers credit they did have a direct interview session, which did somewhat hurt as it was at the expense of the rebuttal period for either party.  However this did force the two to engage which was exceptionally nice to see, and was a good contrast to the dueling press conference style that was their opening statements.

What about Matt?

I’m actually in a bit of a flux myself on how I stand on the issues of naturalism and how a rational person should be approaching these kinds of metaphysical problems.  This ties into some of the things Matt said in the debate that struck a chord with me.

I noted on Twitter about how I was having some thoughts about the standard “naturalism vs. theism” kind of dichotomy that is usually fought over in these debates, and then Matt had endorsed the view that I was starting to flirt with: the idea that we atheists shouldn’t identify as naturalists because it goes too far in its claims.  This however is a topic far beyond my thoughts on this debate.

Matt did his usual spiel about how he “finds god not guilty of existence”, using a courtroom analogy. This is pretty counterintuitive in how most people look at it, but I actually like the analogy and the way he gets there.   

Matt’s presentation on hiddenness was excellent, I particularly liked how he points to how god is revealed in the bible and how that’s somehow no longer done. He also cuts theists off at the pass by pointing to the supposed existence of Satan as evidence that having direct interaction with god wouldn’t violate any concepts of free will, even if free will existed as theists needed it to.

There were a few things Matt said that I take issue with:
  1. As I alluded to earlier, I’ve no problem with the S5 axiom of modal logic, and there are a variety of ways to get there.  The axiom isn’t really controversial so much as what we could really say we are able to derive as metaphysically true from what the axiom would purport to show.  This gets into a variety of complex topics in modal realism and semantics of modal logic, etc.
  2. Matt should have been more careful in how he states the status of arguments for god’s existence are viewed as inconclusive in contemporary philosophy, even by many theistic philosophers of religion.  I just don’t think he can be as glib as he was in saying they’re all refuted without presenting arguments.
  3. Matt needs to be a bit more careful in saying how things must exist in reality as reality is just within space-time.  I agree with his points about theists should use different words to describe god since we conceive of persons or minds as necessarily temporal, and we only know of them to be special/embodied.  Basically Matt shouldn’t tie “reality” with “within space-time”.
  4. I think Matt needs to get a bit more up to speed on the demarcation problem for science. Popper style falsification, as wonderfully tempting as it is for us atheists (I’ve succumbed to it to, even on my previous work on this blog), isn’t going to hold up as the ultimate metric in demarking what is and isn’t science.   That said, even if science isn’t going to be able to say anything about theism or the supernatural, it doesn’t falsify theism.  I think Matt knows this, because he seems to be saying not that theism is necessarily false, but that it doesn’t meet its burden of proof. 
Overall, I think Matt did a decent job on presenting good reasons to doubt the existence of god, and he made some good points with regard to the counter-intuitive notions theistic morality has about god’s ability to just kill anyone as he pleases.  
If you haven’t already, I recommend watching the debate!


  1. Hey Counter-Apologist, good stuff. I had written something out here in the comments section, but I figured your thoughts were good and deserved to have a blog-post response. So I just put that here:

  2. Hello. I'm only commenting because I do identify as a naturalist, and I have no problem saying that. The only thing is, I don't have the philosophical sophistication to defend the view rigorously, so I like to refer people to book written by naturalist philosophers defending that worldview when people ask me why I'm a naturalist.

  3. Hi all. I spent a day or so working on refuting Giunta's probability calculation. The main mistake he makes, in my opinion, is to pretend that the skeptical position is a single model, rather than a great many possible models. Essentially, he's taken bayesian probability theory, and neglected to sum over all possible models that a skeptical could use.

    I've written a non-technical essay about this here:

  4. So S5 of modal logic is just a loop-breaker for everlasting loops in (closed) binary systems, like in computer technology. Breaking out of the loop is the 'needed' action to make the program go into a next linear progress (until the next un/in-decisive decision-loop occurs). So, yes, I understand there are necessities derived from possibilities and probabilities in binary logic, but the heavens and the gods of the Olympus (I like the best and want to join in the afterlife) are outside binary logic.