“Does God exist?”Earlier this month, Christian neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty began to debate the question at Theology Unleashed. As they briefly explain in the first episode, Egnor was an agnostic and became a Christian, based on his experiences; Dillahunty went the opposite route. In the second episode, Egnor set out his position briefly, offering ten proofs of the existence of God. Now it is Matt Dillahunty’s fifteen minutes — to spot weaknesses in Egnor’s arguments and offer his own, beginning at 20:30 min. He begins by remarking on Egnor’s speed of presentation:
A partial transcript and notes follow:
Matt Dillahunty: Never in the entire history of doing debates has someone come in and, in 15 minutes, presented 10 different arguments [00:20:30] and six questions all in a 13-minute opening statement. I wonder… We’ll get there! I look forward to answering all of those questions to the best that I can.
So is there a God?
Normally I point out in these debates that I’m not here to defend a no because the burden of proof is on those who say there is a yes. It’s not up to atheists to prove that a God doesn’t exist. So today I’m just going to say, no, there’s not a God, in the same way that there aren’t leprechauns or fairies. [00:21:00] Given the wording of this debate, “Does God exist?”, we’re asking a question: Is God’s nature consistent with existence?
Does God exist? It’s not about: Do I believe? It’s not about: Do I have good reason to believe? But I can’t actually address the ontology of God because there’s not a God in front of me to assess. There’s not even been a God defined for me to begin to assess. And so the question is kind of ill-formed. [00:21:30]
Note: Ontology: “a theory about the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence” – Merriam–Webster
And we’re going to be fine with that because Dr. Egnor already presented arguments from natural theology that he feels are compelling evidence for concluding that a God does in fact exist. But we can’t conclusively disprove an unfalsifiable proposition. And that is what most “God” definitions, at least as far as I can tell, are. There’s no way to just prove it, which is unfortunate for its advocates because it also makes it a wholly untenable position. To say that you are convinced that an unfalsifiable proposition is true is no more tenable than saying you’re convinced that an unfalsifiable position is not true. Because then you would claim to be falsifying that which can’t be. [00:22:00]
The argument from personal incredulity
There’s a number of different fallacies. Somebody came into my Twitch channel the other day and asked me to give kind of a quick rundown of the difference between the argument from ignorance, the argument from personal incredulity, and the God of the Gaps. And they’re ones that a number of people struggle over.
I’m just going to hit the argument from personal incredulity to begin with here. That is when you assert that something isn’t or cannot be true because you either cannot understand it or don’t accept it. You find it implausible without any other sort of evidential basis. I’m not convinced that a God exists, but if I were to say, “There is no God because I’m not convinced,” [00:23:00] that would be a fallacy.
It would be a logical fallacy for me to show up and say, “The reason I can say that there is no God is because I don’t believe in one.” But instead, my position is that it’s unacceptable to believe something if the available evidence does not support it. And belief isn’t even a subject of choice. You are either convinced or you’re not. I don’t fault people for being convinced but I will happily point out fallacies. It’s not a fallacy to hold a tentative conclusion that is consistent with all the available evidence, a proper placement of the burden of proof, and the willingness to alter that conclusion in the face of new relevant facts. [00:23:30]
That is, in fact, a good description of science. There is no proclamation of truth within [00:24:00] science. Science doesn’t make proclamations of truth. It just says, “Here’s the best model we have, the evidence that supports it, and all of this is tentative so far. It’s subject to change. There are no dictates or absolutes, just models that represent our best thinking and not models that represent my best thinking.” It’s not about the individual. It is about the arguments, which is why within science, you have the ability to conduct peer review and repeat experiments and things like that, to the extent that you can. It doesn’t apply everywhere.
Can we know that God knows everything? How?
So how then am I convinced that there is not a God? One of many, many different versions of the argument from Divine Hiddenness. I’ve used my own version for a number of different years. I think this comes up over and over again. [00:24:30]
As soon as people start giving a definition of the God they believe in and talking about the characteristics and qualities of that God, we can begin to look at the world and see if the world is compatible or consistent with that. [00:25:00] So if we define God, what are its qualities? What are its attributes?
Well, since I’m dealing with someone who’s a Catholic, I think we can begin with at least the qualities generally associated with the God of classical theism. We’re talking about some sort of agent that is timeless, materialless, or spaceless, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-benevolent, or whatever excessive degree of knowing power and benevolence there is within there. [00:25:30]
The problem is that I don’t know how we could demonstrate any of those. If someone came up to you and said, “I know everything,” the only thing you would ever be able to demonstrate is that they know more than you.
They’re able to teach you things. They’re able to show you things that you didn’t know beforehand. And so they are more knowledgeable than you. but how could you ever show that they know everything? Or that they know everything that is knowable? Which is an even more complicated problem. Because if I say I know everything well, that means I know how many atoms are in that pencil over there. But if I say, I know that everything is knowable, I still know that, but there might be things that I don’t know. But how do we determine which things are knowable and which things aren’t? We are limited fallible beings that are just beginning to stand on the shoulders of the people who thought about these questions before us, who did the investigation, and led to these discoveries. [00:26:30]
I find it arrogant to presume that any individual could conclude that there is a being that knows everything and that they know who it is.
How can we really know if there is a God who is timeless, immaterial, and all-powerful?
I don’t know how you demonstrate any of those qualities. How do you demonstrate timeless? How do you demonstrate material-lessness? How do you demonstrate all-powerful? How do you tell the difference between an incredibly powerful being that just goes beyond what we know and understand in our limited time here on earth and one that is truly a God? Or does it even matter? [00:27:00]
If you have got a sufficiently powerful being, most human beings just practically say, “Well, essentially that’s God.” But that’s not what we’re talking about. Because that being is not necessarily the originator, the creator, the sustainer of the universe. It’s not necessarily a being that could serve as a governor or foundation for morality. And so how would you demonstrate that those are the characteristics of the being that actually exists and that you worship? Now as David Hume pointed out, revelation is necessarily first person. [00:27:30]
I was happy to see that we didn’t deal with arguments from revelation today and went down more of the line of natural theism or natural theology. Because if God reveals himself to you, that does me no good. To me, that’s just hearsay. You’re just telling me your story. But if there is a world and if God does reveal himself to people and he doesn’t reveal himself to everyone, then we’re talking about a world in which God is clearly playing favorites. [00:28:00]
And so the question then becomes, Is God a properly basic belief — the sort of thing that needs no justification? Because if so, then there’s no point in having a debate. This is just something that’s obvious. And you should lock up all of us atheists for being clearly delusional to a point that might even be dangerous. If it’s something that’s obvious — based on evidence like callers to the show where they call in and say, “Hey, look at the trees.” [00:28:30]
Well, that would perhaps be even more strong delusion because I like trees. I look at trees all the time. When I look at trees, I don’t see God. Although, I realize there are people who do. Now, this isn’t something that’s going to apply to every possible God. But many, if not, most of the most popular gods, certainly the Abrahamic Gods specifically. And so for the person that’s standing out there saying, “Oh, you can’t say absolutely.” Well, I can’t say anything absolutely, I’m convinced. “But you can’t say that there is no God, you’re just talking about this one specific guy.” Yes, you’re absolutely correct. I’m sorry if you felt you got a bait and switch on that because I can’t, in the same way I can’t talk about the ontology. [00:29:00 ]
Note: The “Abrahamic” God refers to God as understood in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, generally thought of as eternal and immaterial, all-knowing, all-wise, all-powerful, and completely present everywhere (though locally present nowhere). The Biblical figure Abraham is considered the founder of this tradition, acknowledged by all three faiths.
I can’t prove to you that some God I’ve never heard of doesn’t exist. I just don’t see any reason to believe that it does, and I think that that should be the default position until such time as there’s actual evidence. If there’s a God that exists and interacts with the world in a detectable way, then it is in fact demonstrable. Alternately, if there’s a God that exists that wants me to know he exists — and a God by these definitions is capable of convincing me — I remain unconvinced. I’m not even aware of any attempt by a God to convince me, which means either God doesn’t yet want to convince me, or he doesn’t exist. Either way, not my problem. [00:29:30]
God could, under these definitions, demonstrate his existence, and some claim that he does. Yet every single example I’ve ever heard of of him purportedly doing this is either unverifiable or insufficient. Either God is inept or capricious at demonstrating that he exists or that he doesn’t exist. [00:30:00]
It’s confusing to me when we hear a laundry list of short-form arguments as if “they’ve stood the test of time,” when philosophers have argued over these and debated them and come up with new ones over and over again, because they’re not backed by anything. They’re backed by our ignorance, they’re backed by our own confusion, and many of the assumptions that we made when we were putting things in categories. [00:30:30]
Believers’ win-win scenario for God
Just last week there was a woman in Utah who said that she prayed to God about whether or not she should vaccinate her family, and she went and read experts on Facebook. And God said no, that was her wording. She prayed to God, and God said no. Her husband has been in the ICU for over a month and she now considers the experts that she turned to to be frauds. Curiously, though, she doesn’t feel the same way about God. She didn’t say, “I thought God told me,” she said, “God said no.” Which means that if that were true, God was wrong. [00:31:00]
Now, I don’t believe there’s a God who actually told her, “No, don’t get vaccinated.” But she believed it. And what we have throughout history is countless people, surefire, absolutely convinced that they have experienced the divine, that they have received answers from the divine. My mom has gotten many messages from God, and I’m not aware that any of them have been both impressive and true about what’s actually going to happen. [00:31:30]
And believers often set up a win-win scenario for their God, he can’t get anything wrong. There’s never any demonstration of truth, just belief. If you want to demonstrate some fact of biological evolution, you make an argument, you support it with evidence. If you want to demonstrate that you care about another person, you do the things that show that this is the case.
It can be faked. No one’s claiming 100% error-free rate here. But we’re really good at recognizing things. We can recognize postpartum depression in mothers, and various other psychological or perhaps neurological disorders or conditions, I have no expertise there, where someone is behaving in an atypical way. We understand things just enough for us to function at the level we’re functioning now. [00:32:00]
There are many other things that we can demonstrate, including things like altruism, which is just a label for a particular type of behavior that is often described as prioritizing the needs of others over one’s own needs, and that can also be faked. How would you show the difference between true altruism and fake altruism, how do you show the difference between true love and fake love? Because I don’t have a way to peer into somebody’s mind. [00:32:30]
We don’t have a definition of God
When it comes to God, we barely get a definition. I didn’t really hear a definition tonight, just that this is what all men call God. Well, I’m standing here, obviously, or sitting here, obviously, as someone who doesn’t call those things God. But we don’t see physical evidence or strong arguments; what we get are assertions and fallacies.
Does God exist? Not as far as I can tell, not as far as science can tell, which is a troubling problem for many. In order to even begin to claim some God exists, you have to depart from sound epistemology, rational argument founded on evidence, and the facts of reality, and start claiming things that aren’t demonstrable. Special ways of knowing, or things that we don’t yet fully understand, like, “Oh, could you have an infinite regress, or does that just seem to us to be something that isn’t possible or plausible in argument?” [00:33:00]
Note: “Infinite regress” means are argument to an infinite past. “An infinite regress is a series of appropriately related elements with a first member but no last member, where each element leads to or generates the next in some sense.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. A common objection to an infinite past is that everything that could happen would already have happened, including the fact that we don’t exist. But we do exist. So we assume that the past is limited in some ways; for example, it is limited to events that include the possibility of our existence. For these reasons, most thinkers do not hold that an infinite past can be a substitute for God or can explain puzzles in science.
I’m still waiting for someone to answer the question, “Does God exist?” With, “Yes, God exists. Here he is.” That’d be ideal. Next best would be, “Yes God exists, here’s the evidence, it’s been reviewed by the best minds of the planet, doesn’t seem to contain errors, and represents the best scientific thinking we currently have.” But instead I get platitudes, unsupported claims of miracles and oddities, and philosophical arguments that don’t seem to be backed by much. So does God exist? No. That’s my current tentative position. It’s subject to revision the instant there exists a valid and sound argument supported by evidence for the proposition. [00:33:30]
In my model, our world continues to grow and learn more. Once upon a time, barrenness in women was considered divine punishment. There are now treatments. The same is true for many other diseases and conditions. My friend Frank Zindler wrote a poem based on Jesus Loves the Little Children called “Jesus Loves the Little Zygotes.” I’ll not read all of it here, but it points out a lot of the maladies that gods have purportedly afflicted children with, heart defects, measles, mumps, ringworm, et cetera. But through the diligence of scientific inquiry in medicine, the final verse says, “Jesus gives children acne, AIDS, and leprosy galore. Germs and worms of every kind, things to make the children blind. But he cannot give them smallpox anymore.” [00:34:30]
Now, scientists and unbelievers have wiped smallpox from the planet, essentially. If there is a God, I’d like to know, I’d love to know, I may not worship or revere that God, but there’s no reason for a God to remain hiding from me. There’s no reason for a God not to make it obvious. I have lots of questions about how it is that we can have a group of people who are convinced that the existence of God is almost a basic, obvious fact, and another group of people saying, “I don’t see that,” and we never seem to get any better evidence. The fallacious arguments from personal incredulity, alongside the God of the gaps. If there is a God, why not show up and correct all my mistakes here tonight, all of Dr. Egnor’s mistakes, and thousands of others throughout the years of rational, skeptical objections to this? [00:35:30]
Next: Now it’s Mike Egnor’s turn to rebut Dillahunty… stay tuned! Egnor’s rebuttal: No, the burden of proof is on all of us…
The complete debate, with transcripts and notes:
- Debate: Former atheist neurosurgeon vs. former Christian activist. At Theology Unleashed, each gets a chance to state his case and interrogate the other. In a lively debate at Theology Unleashed, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and broadcaster Matt Dillahunty clash over the existence of God.
- A neurosurgeon’s ten proofs for the existence of God. First, how did a medic, formerly an atheist, who cuts open people’s brains for a living, come to be sure there is irrefutable proof for God? In a lively debate at Theology Unleashed, Michael Egnor and Matt Dillahunty clash over “Does God exist?” Egnor starts off.
- Atheist Dillahunty spots fallacies in Christian Egnor’s views. “My position is that it’s unacceptable to believe something if the available evidence does not support it.” Dillahunty: We can’t conclusively disprove an unfalsifiable proposition. And that is what most “God” definitions, at least as far as I can tell, are.
- Egnor now tries to find out what Dillahunty actually knows… About philosophical arguments for the existence of God, as he begins a rebuttal. Atheist Dillahunty appears unable to recall the philosophical arguments for God’s existence, which poses a challenge for Egnor in rebutting him.
- Egnor, Dillahunty dispute the basic causes behind the universe. In a peppery exchange, Egnor argues that proofs of God’s existence follow the same logical structure as proofs in science. If the universe begins in a singularity (where Einstein’s equations break down), what lies behind it? Egnor challenges Dillahunty on that.
- Is Matt Dillahunty using science as a crutch for his atheism? That’s neurosurgeon Michael Egnor’s accusation in this third part of the debate, which features a continued discussion of singularities, where conventional “laws of nature” break down.
If the “supernatural” means “outside of conventional nature,” Michael Egnor argues, science routinely accepts it, based on evidence.
- Dillahunty asks 2nd oldest question: If God exists, why evil? In the debate between Christian neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty, the question of raping a baby was bound to arise.
Egnor argues that there is an objective moral law against such acts; Dillahunty argues, no, it is all just human judgment.
- Does morality really exist? If so, does it come from God? Matt Dillahunty now challenges Michael Egnor: There is no way to know whether a moral doctrine represents any reality apart from belief. Michael Egnor insists that a moral law exists independently of varying opinions. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, that has always been the traditional view worldwide.
- Michael Egnor explains why Matt Dillahunty is not an atheist. Not really, anyway, Egnor insists, because he keeps invoking a moral standard that can’t exist if materialist atheism is true. Egnor: I’ve encountered few people who demand as much fairness for themselves as atheists. They don’t live like atheists. They live like theists.
- Christian Egnor and atheist Dillahunty now take questions… For example, “ What is Mr. Egnor’s best evidence of any god that would make me believe?” Key questions turned on whether abstractions like “right” or wrong “wrong” represent realities. It’s the perennial realism vs. nominalism question again.
- Is evil in the world simply the absence of good? Christian Michael Egnor argues for that view. Then he and atheist Matt Dillahunty clash over whether a cause can be outside of time. Many traditional philosophers have held that evil is the absence of good in the same way that darkness is the absence of light. It has no independent existence.
- Egnor vs. Dillahunty: How can God be both just and merciful? After atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty explains his view of morality, an audience member asks neurosurgeon Michael Egnor to explain how a just God can show mercy. Under what circumstances, a debate watcher asks, would it not be contradictory to show both justice and mercy?
- Egnor vs. Dillahunty: Are singularities a part of science? Also, an audience member asks the debaters: Does atheism make better predictions than theism? Dillahunty denies that atheism is a single position; Egnor responds that that is a suspect claim because atheist positions are quite predictable.
- Debate: Is morality a mere emotion that we project on others? Theist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty continue their conversation about basic issues at Theology Unleashed. Michael Egnor argues that God created the universe, imperfect in relation to himself, out of an excess of love — perhaps so that we all have some type of being.
- Debate: How can a cause and effect occur at the same time?? In the broken window analogy, the brick becomes a cause simultaneously with the shattered glass becoming an effect. In the wrap-up, Egnor restates that atheism is not really an argument, just ignorance, and Dillahunty restates that Egnor was attacking him personally.
You may also wish to read these pieces by Michael Egnor:
Science can and does point to God’s existence. Michael Egnor: Natural science is not at all methodologically naturalist — it routinely points to causes outside of nature. If we are to understand natural effects, we must be open to all kinds of causes, including causes that transcend nature.
The Divine Hiddenness argument against God’s existence = nonsense. God in Himself is immeasurably greater than we are, and He transcends all human knowledge. A God with whom we do not struggle — who is not in some substantial and painful way hidden to us — is not God but is a mere figment of our imagination.
Atheist Claims about logical fallacies often just mean: Shut Up! In the recent debate, Matt Dillahunty accuses theists of “the fallacy of the argument from personal incredulity” because we examine his claims and find them incredible. What atheists fear most is having to explain themselves, and the invocation of fictitious “fallacies” is one of their favorite ways to evade scrutiny.
Theists vs. atheists: Which group has the burden of proof? Because Dillahunty refuses to debate me again, I’ll address his claim that atheists have no burden of proof in the debate over God’s existence in this post. Both atheists and theists make positive statements about the nature of the universe. If atheists shun the ensuing burden of proof, it should count against them.
Atheist spokesman Matt Dillahunty refuses to debate me again Although he has said that he finds debates “incredibly valuable,” he is — despite much urging — making an exception in this case. Why? For millennia, theists have thought meticulously about God’s existence. New Atheists merely deny any need to make a case. That’s partly why I dumped atheism.