Open thread on today’s show

I’m actually typing this with about 15 minutes left to go in the program. But we’ve already had the epic 48-minute sequel discussion with Matt Slick, and I’m sure people will have a lot of feedback.

Generally speaking, I think Slick really got his deer-in-the-headlights thing on when Matt D. pointed out the distinction — which Slick pointedly refused to recognize, whether he really didn’t or was just pretending not to in order to defend his position — between logical absolutes as essential properties of reality, and the discipline of logic which we as thinking beings use to understand reality. In an uninhabited universe with no minds, a rock is still a rock and not a mushroom. Slick insisted this could not be the case, conflating the logical process by which we understand “A=A” with the physical object “A,” the rock. Then, in order to take control of a discussion that was getting away from him, he got Matt D. bogged down by demanding that Matt D. define a “third option” beyond “physical” and “conceptual”. I think Matt D. slipped up a little here, in that he let himself get flustered and angry at Slick’s little Mexican Hat Dance around his salient criticism of TAG, as well as by Slick’s aggressive subject-changing and obfuscation. I wish Matt D. had just asked, “So is God conceptual?”

On the whole, though, Matt D. mopped the floor with Slick, because Slick’s only response to Matt’s pointing out the contradiction in claiming absolutes to be both conceptual and not contingent on minds was to say, basically, “Nuh-uh.” Slick’s exercise in distracting and flustering Matt was quite intentional. Having done this for years, I recognize the argumentation tactic of “if you can’t beat ‘em, piss ‘em off” that apologists employ as a matter of course.

But did you catch the part where Slick essentially admitted God could not be omnipotent, because God could not do anything to defy a logical absolute? Which Matt D. then pointed out proved that God had to be contingent upon logical absolutes and not the author of them? To which Slick again responded with “Nuh-uh”? Based on today’s call, it seems clear to me that all Slick is doing with TAG is trying to find a way to call logic “God.”

Great episode, though. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Another friggin’ post on the Transcendental Argument :)

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.

TAG Redux

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.

TAG, you’re not it

As I’ve been away from the blog for way too long, I thought it’d be a prime opportunity to get back in the swing of things with my tuppence on the last AE TV show, and the whole dustup with CARM’s Matt Slick over his use of TAG, the Transcendental Argument for God. I’m going to comment, not on the show — which, sue me, I still haven’t seen, but which sounds to me like it was a terrific episode, due to the response it’s gotten from viewers both pro and con; I judge the show’s merits by how passionately it engages our audience, and not how well the hosts did or didn’t do, as you always find yourself Monday-morning-quarterbacking the damn thing once it’s done — but the argument as Slick presents it on CARM’s site. He is known to boast that no atheist has ever been able to respond to it, which I find hard to believe, since its flaws are readily apparent.

I won’t make this as epic a post as my recent two-parter replying to questions from apologists like Habermas. And it isn’t going to be the ultimate in comprehensive refutations of TAG either; there’s a lot more that other writers have said than I even begin to touch on here. I’ll just cut to the chase: the argument essentially tries to establish that the universe operates logically, and that it could not do so if the Christian God had not set it up that way.

When discussing what he terms logical absolutes, Slick is largely correct. The three laws are accurate as far as I can determine, and he’s right when he says that truth cannot be self-contradictory and so on. If there were no minds in the universe to think about these things, a rock on a barren planet would still conform to the law of identity. It would be what it is, and not be what it isn’t. Slick’s sound on his premises more or less, but keep in mind that what he’s talking about here are logical absolutes — that is to say, unadorned, bald, ontological facts about reality — and not the formalized methods of logic as an intellectual discipline. This distinction is important, as Slick will begin sneakily conflating the two as he gets closer to his conclusion.

Where Slick starts wobbling is in 4C.

4. Logical Absolutes are transcendent

    A. Logical Absolutes are not dependent on space.
    1. They do not stop being true dependent on location. If we traveled a million light years in a direction, logical absolutes are still true.
    B. Logical Absolutes are not dependent on time.
    1. They do not stop being true dependent on time. If we traveled a billion in the future or past, logical absolutes are still true.
    C. Logical Absolutes are not dependent on people. That is, they are not the product of human thinking.
    1. People’s minds are different. What one person considers to be absolute may not be what another considers to be absolute. People often contradict each other. Therefore, Logical Absolutes cannot be the product of human, contradictory minds.
    2. If Logical Absolutes were the product of human minds, then they would cease to exist if people ceased to exist which would mean they would be dependent on human minds. But this cannot be so per the previous point.

You may have notice how carefully a card has been palmed under C. Slick states that absolutes are not dependent on people. What he should have said here, as it would have been more strictly accurate, is not “people” but “minds.” For one thing, minds are what he’s talking about, after all, not spleens or toenails. And in points C1 and C2, he does clarify that he’s referring to minds. But why set things up by referring to human minds specifically? Because he wants to leave the backdoor open for a transcendent, supernatural mind, conveniently belonging to his God, as an explanation for logical absolutes.

Having palmed his card in 4C, Slick switches it in point 6. Watch carefully:

6. Logical Absolutes are conceptual by nature

    Logic is a process of the mind. Logical absolutes provide the framework for logical thought processes. Therefore, Logical Absolutes are conceptual by nature.
    1. If they are conceptual by nature, they are not dependent upon the physical universe for their existence.

Did you catch that? Moments ago, Slick was telling us that logical absolutes cannot be the product of minds. Then here, he switches from talking about logical absolutes to logic-the-discipline, which very much is a “process of the mind”. Then in his very next sentences, he switches right back to absolutes again, declaring them “conceptual” (that is, the products of mind) right after telling us, more or less correctly, that flawed human minds cannot have anything to do with them. There’s the conflation of logical absolutes with logic-the-discipline.

Slick doesn’t want logical absolutes to be the product of flawed material human minds, but he wants them to be the product of someone’s mind, namely God’s. So he has to introduce a bit of legerdemain at the right moment in his proof to get himself to his God. Which brings us to point 7, in which Slick, having laid down a number of observations of logical absolutes in nature, proceeds to pull God out of his hat in the mother of all non sequiturs.

7. Thoughts reflect the mind

  1. A person’s thoughts reflect what he or she is.
  2. Absolutely perfect thoughts reflect an absolutely perfect mind.
  3. Since the Logical Absolutes are transcendent, absolute, are perfectly consistent, and are independent of the universe, then they reflect a transcendent, absolute, perfect, and independent mind.
  4. We call this transcendent, absolute, perfect, and independent mind, God.

Sorry, Matt, but absolutely nothing in the preceding six points has supported the conclusion you reach in your seventh. You could just as meaningfully have written, “We call this transcendent, absolute, perfect, and independent mind, Gus the Magic Cosmic Hippo.”

Let’s get down to a few details. First off, logical absolutes. Here is where Don Baker and Slick really tussled on the show, and I think shows how Slick’s conflation of concepts in logic have really muddied the waters here. Let’s just take one of the three absolutes: the law of identity.

What the law of identity describes is a condition of reality that exists, independent of mind or anything else. That anywhere in the universe, whether there is life and a mind to observe it or not, an existing thing will be what it is, and it won’t be what it isn’t.

But in determining that such absolutes are not contingent upon minds, and furthermore, that a mind is a flawed thing that can make incorrect judgments about things, Slick is at a loss to explain them. He does not wish to consider that a fact of nature may simply be a fact of nature. So he has to jump to the conclusion that a transcendent mind must have conceived of what the flawed human mind cannot. Then, Slick just decides to call that mind God, even though there is nothing in the entire preceding argument whatsoever to lead one to conclude, logically, that such a transcendent mind must necessarily be that of the Biblical God. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. After everything Slick has constructed in a largely impressive-sounding proof, he simply gives us an upmarket, designer-label variant of “God of the Gaps”.

There are other little nagging flaws you could nitpick to death, such as the faux-conclusion “Absolutely perfect thoughts reflect an absolutely perfect mind.” The natural response here is to ask Slick how he, with his imperfect and flawed human mind, can consider himself in any position to recognize an absolutely perfect thought when he encounters it. And remember, when this whole argument started, logical absolutes were not the product, nor could they be, of a mind at all. Until point 6, when logic-the-discipline and logical absolutes did a brief switcheroo that allowed Slick to shoehorn in his pe
rfect, transcendent mind. Then, the “absolutes” became “conceptual,” and thus contingent upon an “absolutely perfect mind.”

But there’s another problem.

For the “perfect, transcendent mind” Slick proposes to exist, it must conform as well to logical absolutes like the law of identity. If God exists, he must be God. Even if he were a God who could magically change his form into a fish or talking donkey or what have you, he would still, in those situations, be God. He wouldn’t be God and Not-God. He couldn’t be all-powerful and possess no powers whatsoever at the same time.

So for God to exist, he must exist in a logical framework. Thus logical absolutes cannot be contingent upon God. God must be contingent upon logical absolutes. QED.

Slick purports to address a number of objections, though he doesn’t really refute the objections he lists so much as ask questions about them. I’ll only deal with the first two.

Logical Absolutes are the result of natural existence

  1. In what sense are they the result of natural existence? How do conceptual absolutes form as a result of the existence of matter?

If you work from a primacy-of-existence metaphysics as I do, then you realize that a logical order is entailed by the nature of existence itself. Existence exists, which is not a statement that requires a proof, I shouldn’t think. And to exist is to exist as something, as George H. Smith pointed out in Atheism: The Case Against God. I suppose a person could propose the existence of something that took no form whatsoever (in fact, they’ve done so: it’s God). But then you’re stuck trying to offer proofs. And yet, what’s the difference between something that takes no form of any kind, and something that does not exist?

Also, notice again how slick Slick is with his language here. Once more, the logical absolutes that are not in any way a product of mind have become “conceptual” absolutes when Slick needs them to. Well, while the law of identity as it is put into words by logicians may be “conceptual,” the thing the law describes is an actual, not conceptual, absolute. And actual absolutes are inherent in nature. Unless my imperfect mind is totally misrepresenting nature to me, and I’m just a brain in a vat! Blub, blub.

Logical Absolutes simply exist.

  1. This is begging the question and does not provide an explanation for their existence. Simply saying they exist is not an answer.

But Matt, your whole argument here has been in aid of getting you to God, a being whom you assume simply to exist, and for whose existence, if you were asked, you would say did not require an explanation.

Since I consider existence to be a causal primary, I don’t think an explanation is needed for the existence of existence. But even though I’ll willingly admit I could be wrong, I think my position is at least more sound than yours, in that existence really does exist, obviously enough so that it shouldn’t require proof, as your God does. And as I’ve explained, your God would have to adhere to logical absolutes like the law of identity himself in order to exist. So I’m afraid you’re going to have to do better than TAG in future if you want to demonstrate God’s existence, let alone that the universe is contingent upon him.

The Slick Transcendental Argument

On the February 15th episode of the Atheist Experience, we got a call from a “Matt Slick” from the Christian Apologetics Research Ministry. Unfortunately, Matt Dillahunty had been arranging this call [edit: No he hadn't, please see comments. -Kazim] and Mr. Slick happened to call in when our Matt was not on the air. Matt has been anxious to debate Mr. Slick, so he was frustrated that he wasn’t on that week. Matt is hoping for Mr. Slick to call again next week.

After a little discussion, Mr. Slick chose to present us a version of the Transcendental Argument for the existence of God. Apparently, it’s the one for which most atheists are the least prepared to debate. Unfortunately, Russell and I took a different debate strategy with our guest and it didn’t come off as well as it might have. I took the strategy of questioning assumptions as they came across, which perhaps bogged down the discussion. Mr. Slick was frustrated he didn’t get to arrive at the latter part of his argument with his assumptions intact, which might have been the real source of his frustration. Eventually, we ran out of time and he gave the link to his version of the argument before we ended the episode.

At dinner, we had some debate about the nature of logic and I seem to have a position that is not the majority one. I’d like to explain my position and why it sabotages Mr. Slick’s argument early on.

Formal logic is a branch of discrete mathematics invented by humans. It concerns the truth or falsehood of logical propositions. The beauty of it is that it is sound, meaning that if the assumptions are correct and the operations are properly applied, the result will also be true. Another important thing to understand is that, like any tool, it’s not universally applicable. It doesn’t apply (without modification) to truth values that change over time, things that are not discrete (think clouds, water droplets, or wave-particle duality), or infinite things. As with any tool, if it’s miss-applied, you will get incorrect results. This is the point I was trying to make in the call.

Mr. Slick was trying to make the point that logic is absolute—that it is true in all times, places, and circumstances. I disagree with this statement. In his argument, for example, he refers to a “Law of identity”, “Law of non-contradiction”, and “Law of excluded middle.” Mr. Slick is trying to lay the groundwork for a Law Giver who will eventually be the author of such laws. What Mr. Slick calls the “Law of identity” is really just the definition of equality. Exactly how you define equality is effectively a human-based assumption built into the model. The “Law of non-contraction” concerns the desirability of soundness of the system, meaning that if you build on false statements, you can no longer trust the conclusion. Soundness is a human-desired property of a formal system and we would reject any system that didn’t have it (and yes, such systems exist). Finally, what he calls the “Law of excluded middle” is an axiom of formal logic. Axioms are assumptions (made by humans) that may not be applicable in all situations. The point here is that no God is involved. Mr. Slick’s argument is on shaky ground from the beginning.

Formal logic is the basis of mathematics, computer science, and other disciplines. It is astoundingly useful, when it is properly applied. Mr. Slick tries to make a rather muddy point that logic is universal and therefore transcendent. The above discussion is necessary to tease apart several possible meanings of this statement.

  • It is not the case that it applies universally and we need to look no further than his own “proof” statements to see some problems:
    • Both conception and death are processes that last over time. There are times where it is ambiguous as to whether or not a person is dead or whether an embryo has been conceived. They are not two-valued things, such as is assumed by formal logic. Likewise, there is no such thing as a “moment of conception” as Christian propagandists would have you believe.
    • Living things change constantly over time, so the notion of what it means to be “the same” from one hour, year, century, has to be carefully defined before any meaningful conclusions can be drawn.
    • Clouds are not discrete objects. Combining two clouds yields one cloud. Does that mean that 1+1 = 1, and one of the first two clouds no longer exists? (Answer: it depends exactly on what you mean by “exist.”)
    • Many quantum mechanical events, such as radioactive decay, are uncaused. (Too bad for the cosmological argument for the existence of a god.)
  • It is absolutely true that formal logic is sound. That is, whenever the assumptions and methods are properly used, they yield correct results. It doesn’t matter where, when, or by whom the model is applied. In this sense, it is absolute and universal.
  • It’s even possible that, given just how useful formal logic is, other races will have invented it independently. Nobody has any evidence for this conclusion, but I think it’s likely. We know of no other species that have independently invented/discovered it, so Mr. Slick has yet to prove it’s absolute in this sense. He is trying to hide an assumption that a god created logic inside a proof of the existence of such a god. This is a circularity that renders Mr. Slick’s argument unsound (false).

Mr. Slick then goes on to say that logic is the product of only minds. It is true that humans invented it, but machines can carry it out. There are computer programs called theorem provers that can perform proofs of novel propositions. A version of the famous four color problem was solved by a computer before it was solved by a human. In his proof, Mr. Slick goes asserts that somehow minds are necessary to apply logic. Mr. Slick’s god is apparently not much better than a calculator.

So even before we get to the “meat” of Mr. Slick’s argument, we find it riddled with falsehoods and muddled thinking. I’ll let Matt refute the rest of the argument on the show, should Mr. Slick call back, but essentially, the rest of the argument is a blatant attempt to steal credit from the hard work of mathematicians that Mr. Slick hasn’t taken the trouble to understand.

I find it pathetic that billions of people believe in an omniscient God, nearly all of them claim to be in direct communication with Him, yet together they can’t come up with any evidence for Him. Mr. Slick lived up to my impression of apologists—intellectually dishonest people who are happy to mislead others using logical fallacies and manipulation. The world would be a better place without these con artists.