I’m never prouder of the Atheist Community of Austin than when we all manage to pull together in a discussion about serious topics of philosophy and presentation strategy. Last night six of us got together in an Austin coffeehouse to discuss several issues for the show, and for the first hour we went over Matt Slick’s Transcendental Argument for God (TAG) with a fine-toothed comb. I see that Martin has already outlined several conclusions of that conversation admirably, so I won’t need to go over all of it. I’ll defer to his well-written response.
At this point people who are interested in arguments and not a glimpse at behind-the-scenes process might want to skip down to the bold header below, where I will take up one final argument against TAG.
We have received a veritable flood of comments about the Matt Slick call: by email, on the blog (both here and here), on the Iron Chariots forum, and on my favorite hangout, the Atheist Fools board (115 posts at the time of this writing). All told, there have been several hundred comments about that episode, which I think probably makes it one of the most talked-about episodes ever.
That didn’t necessarily make it a good episode, of course. The feedback has been mixed, and I’ve listened to all kinds of criticism that I take very seriously. Matt D called me almost as soon as the show was over to vent his frustrations about some aspects of the call. While most of the email and online comments have been positive, an uncomfortably high number of them have also said that Don and I handled the call “disgracefully,” that we were rude and impatient, and that Matt Slick was right to call us out for interrupting him a lot. A couple even said it put them off the show permanently.
I don’t dismiss these comments. We’re only human. In a 1997 article from the Internet Infidels library, Michael Martin says:
“Ignorance of TAG is hardly surprising since it plays no role in the position of the most famous contemporary religious apologists and is not covered in standard texts in the philosophy of religion. In fact, I myself was unaware of it when I published a book on atheism in which I spend hundreds of pages refuting theistic arguments (Martin, 1990).”
I wouldn’t say that I’ve never heard the TAG before, but because it’s never been a common argument from our callers, I’ve never given it a lot much consideration at all. I’ve been told that I was rushing so much to find a contradiction in Slick’s logic that I jumped ahead to parts of the argument that hadn’t been made yet, allowing Slick to make us look bad by saying that he wasn’t saying those things at all.
Of course, reading his argument online, it’s crystal clear that he damn well was going to say many of those things, but apparently wild indignation at not being allowed to talk is Mr. Slick’s style. Commenter KaylaKaze pointed us to a debate Slick had with the Rational Response Squad. He was allowed to speak uninterrupted for much longer periods of time, and yet he still complained about how he wasn’t allowed to keep talking.
It’s a fine line to walk. Matt D and others who gave feedback are absolutely right that I should have exhibited more patience and let him go through more of the argument without interrupting. I also regret being a little more jokey than usual, appearing to dismiss and ridicule Mr. Slick. However, give an apologist too much air time and he’s liable to pull a Gish Gallop, presenting a long stream of misconceptions that must be gone over in great detail. So as Martin says, Monday morning quarterbacking is easy, and I’ve done plenty of it myself; being in the position makes it trickier to see the long view.
I received some excellent advice from Motley Fool poster jgc123, who said:
“When you are hearing a new argument, admit that it is a new one or one that you have not worked through as thoroughly as the others. Or just tell the person that you are not sure you understand their version of the argument and keep asking questions until you are really ready to respond. If necessary, pull a Larry King and let them have the stage for the full hour, after which you invite them to come back. You can’t win anybody over by not listening to them.”
Words to live by. Thank you, everyone, for your feedback, both good and bad.
Martin already did a great job recapping the highlights of our discussion from last night, but there’s just one more point I’d like to raise with regard to the specific form of TAG that Matt Slick used, and he doesn’t address this one on his website. Essentially it’s a reformulation of the well-known Euthyphro Dilemma, which we refer to a lot on the show.
In point 6A, the TAG argument states that “Logical Absolutes are conceptual by nature,” and therefore their existence is necessarily contingent on the existence of a mind (such as God’s) to conceive them. For example, the law of identity, “A is A,” is true only because it is held in a perfect mind. You’ll notice that in point 4C, Slick says that “Logical Absolutes are not dependent on people,” and the reason he gives is that people’s minds are different and may contradict each other. Presumably this includes a mind contradicting itself by having different opinions at different points in time. So here’s my question:
Can God change his mind?
I suspect that Slick would say that God is eternally correct and unchanging, but let’s clarify that question. Suppose God said “A is not A.” Would the laws of logic then change? If he says that they do, then logical absolutes are no longer so absolute; they are subject to the whims of a capricious mind, and we’re back to the same problem that Slick highlighted in 4C.
However if, as I suspect, the answer is that God cannot change his mind — if he is logically bound to uphold the unalterable truth that A is A — then God isn’t the author of logical absolutes at all. His mind is an extraneous addition to the question. With or without God’s mind, things would still be equal to themselves.
Thus, as a proof for the logical necessity of God, the TAG fails.
In conclusion, please be sure to catch next week’s show with Matt and Tracie. Our hosts have the benefit of a week-long conversation under their belts, and they’ll be taking the topic up again. Matt has encouraged Matt Slick to call back again, and while he may not do so — I am also in possession of a rather testy email protesting his treatment — there will be discussion on the topic either way.
As I said in my lecture about atheist evangelism, you don’t learn to play games well without exposing yourself to toug
h opponents and acknowledging weaknesses in your own style. The TV show has always been a learning process for all of us, and I thank you all for giving me the opportunity to learn through error as your host.