It is not often that you see a Christian apologist out-debate an atheist on logical grounds. But that is what happened when in 2009 Christian apologist Matt Slick (carm.org) phoned in to Matt Dillahunty’s live cable access TV show in Austin Texas, The Atheist Experience. Their discussion was concerned with whether logical absolutes presuppose the existence of God. You can watch the debate here.
I want to revisit this debate, because it is a good reminder that atheists should not be lulled into a state of complacency when it comes to assuming that their own thinking is logical and those of theists is illogical. It might seem an obvious matter that many theistic conceptions are irrational, but that is not to say that proponents of those ideas are not capable of engaging in rational debate, or that everything they say is illogical. It also is not to say that atheists have a firm grasp on the logical foundations of their own views.
The informal debate that took place on that occasion concerned Matt Slick’s version of the transcendental argument for the existence of God (TAG), based on what he calls ‘logical absolutes’. The argument goes basically like this (see here for a more detailed structure of the argument):
1. logical absolutes accord with the law of identity, law of contradiction, and law of the excluded middle
2. logical absolutes are truth statements such as that which exists has attributes and a nature
3. logical absolutes form the basis of rational discourse
4. logical absolutes are transcendent, as they are not dependent on space, time or human thinking
5. logical absolutes are not dependent on the material world
6. logical absolutes are conceptual by nature – i.e. a process of the mind
7. we call this transcendent, absolute, perfect and independent mind ‘God’
8. (Slick is equating conceptual to consciousness)
Basically Slick claims that logical absolutes adhere to a conceptual basis and therefore must be a product of consciousness, yet they cannot be ascribed to any subjective disposition as they are universal truths. They must necessarily exist independently of human consciousness (i.e. the “transcendence” aspect of the argument) in some form of universal consciousness. The best candidate (or the only candidate as far as Slick is concerned) is a divine consciousness.
The counter-argument from Dillahunty is that logical absolutes are not conceptual in nature, and that they do not reside in God but in some other universal state. They must necessarily transcend God, because even God is subject to logical absolutes.
Dillahunty: can God make A not A?
Dillahunty: which means God is subject to the laws of logic and cannot be their creator
Slick: they are part of his essence/nature
Dillahunty: so God is either equivalent to logical absolutes, or they co-exist, in which case you have made an argument for the transcendent reality of logical absolutes, but not for the existence of God
Of course, it is conceivable that God could create rules by which he might also be bound, so this is not a proper objection. But Slick is more interested in following up on Delahunty’s statement that logical absolutes are non-conceptual in nature:
Slick: but they are conceptual (hence can only be explained by God). If no mind exists, then statements of truth cannot exist
Dillahunty: if no mind exists, then logical absolutes still would (as an essence, not as a human assessment of true/false). A rock is a rock, and is not not a rock.
Slick: logic reflects reality, but when you attempt to distinguish the ontological reality from the truth statement, and do the same with logic, you commit a category mistake. Then what you are doing is affirming that the law of identity is still true whether or not you are there to know it or not.
Dillahunty: yes, they are true in this way. You have committed a fallacy by positing a conceptual nature to logical absolutes based on the conceptual nature of logic applied by humans
Actually Dillahunty commits a fallacy here by begging the question that logical absolutes are non-conceptual in nature. His claim that Slick slips from a non-conceptual view to a conceptual view by equivocating between logical absolutes (as abstracts) and logic (as the application of these abstract to phenomena) is not true – Slick never asserts at any point that logical absolutes are non-conceptual. Dillahunty has merely assumed they are non-conceptual, based on his assumed equation of the abstract with the non-conceptual.
Slick sees the vulnerability in Dillahunty’s claim that logical absolutes are non conceptual in nature and pursues the issue:
Slick: But if they aren’t conceptual, then what are they?
Dillahunty: I don’t know, but they are what they are, and not what they are not
Slick: So you don’t know what they are, but you are telling me what they are not?
Dillahunty: I don’t need to tell you what they are. I just know they are not conceptual.
Slick: Do you mean they are physical?
Dillahunty: No. That is a false dichotomy. Logical absolutes transcend reality – reality is subject to them.
Slick: But you are a materialist-naturalist who believes our thought processes are a bunch of physical properties and bio-chemical reactions – then logic is a product of this – so how can they exist independently of humans? In naturalism, logic does not have a place in any transcendent reality.
Dillahunty: Yes, for logic, but not for logical absolutes (which logic refers to). They are not dependent on human minds.
Slick: So if they are not conceptual and not physical, what are they? What is your third option?
Dillahunty: A third option isn’t required. They are either conceptual or non-conceptual, and I know they are not conceptual.
Accepting that logical absolutes have no correlate in the physical universe, Dillahunty has to admit that he does not know what they are. He is being somewhat of a Platonist in this regard, positing an imaginary realm where these forms reside, but having no empirical support for the existence of such a realm. This leaves Dillahunty cornered, because he asserts that he is certain they are non conceptual, which implies that he must have some knowledge about their nature, or else have some basis for ruling them out as conceptual on other logical grounds, to sustain that claim. He has neither.
Does this mean that we should give the debate to Slick? Maybe we should in terms of his performance in this particular debate, but not so in terms of the validity of his position. In the second part of this article series, I turn to the problems in the positions being advanced by the two participants, which turn on their difficulty in grasping logic as abstractions of the human mind.