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5. 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

At this point in the “Does God exist?” debate between theist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty (September 17, 2021), readers may recall that the debate opened with Egnor explaining why, as a former atheist, he became a theist. Then Dillahunty explained why, as a former theist, he became an atheist. Michael Egnor then made his opening argument, offering ten proofs for the existence of God. Matt Dillahunty responded in his own opening argument that the propositions were all unfalsifiable. When, in Section 4, it was Egnor’s turn to rebut Dillahunty, Dillahunty was not easily able to recall Aquinas’s First Way (the first logical argument for the existence of God).

No matter, they agreed to keep talking. The conversation continues to be somewhat rambunctious, thus has been condensed for print:

A partial transcript (beginning at 45:00 min) and notes follow:

Michael Egnor: Okay. So let’s start with the first argument, Aquinas’s First Way, okay? Aquinas — and this actually comes from Aristotle — observed that change happens in nature. Which we’d all agree, change happens.

Michael Egnor: The Aristotelian understanding of change is that there is a state called potency, — things can have the possibility of changing. And then there’s a state of actuality

Matt Dillahunty: That is about something coming into its potential of being. But go ahead. [00:45:30]

Michael Egnor: So there are possibilities and there are actualities, and they don’t cross over. Something that’s possible by definition is not yet actual, and something that is actual is no longer possible, it’s actual. Causal chains in nature involve sequences of possible states of being that become actual states of being. and there’s a chain that goes down, and that’s how causes happen. [00:46:00]

Matt Dillahunty: I thought we were starting with the first one, and now you’ve switched into causation, which is the second.

Michael Egnor: That’s a very good point, because they do overlap. That is, that the First Way focuses on change, on…

Matt Dillahunty: One could argue, as many have, that at least the first three of Thomas Aquinas’s [Five] Ways are all kind of summarized in cosmological arguments in general. [00:46:30]

Michael Egnor: Right, exactly. And all the cosmological arguments depend on the impossibility of infinite regress in an instrumental series of causes in nature. And instrumental causes are a series of causes where the causes have to continuously exist for the whole process to happen. Again, the example that Aristotle used was pushing a rock with a stick. And the stick is the instrumental series of causes, that is, it’s this object that goes from your hand to the rock. [00:47:00]

Note: Infinite regress means an infinite series of causes backward in time. Philosophers have not typically accepted such an explanation of our universe because the very fact that we exist shows that some causes (those which would result in our not existing) have not in fact happened. Thus, backward in time, some limits exist.

Michael Egnor: His argument was that no matter how long you make the stick, no matter how far back you make an infinite regress, you need a hand, you need something that is purely actual to be the prime mover to get the process starting. Everything can’t just be possible. There has to be something that is purely actual to start the process, and that is what all men call God. [00:47:30]

Matt Dillahunty: Except that that’s not what all men call God. I know that Aristotle says that, I know that’s part of that. Clearly…

Michael Egnor: Aristotle didn’t say that. Aquinas did.

Matt Dillahunty: Sorry. My bad. Thank you for the correction. This notion that this is what everybody calls God doesn’t mean that that is in fact God, and it doesn’t mean that this understanding, the summary that we’re doing. Carl Sagan famously, in his notes, [00:48:00] when viewing a claim about an infinite regress, and this assertion that we can’t have an infinite regress, because if we did, we would never be able to stop asking…

But this notion that you must have an infinite causal chain, and there must be a first cause is basically an argument from analogy. We are going to look at the universe and how things operate, and here’s the causal chain, or here is the action chain, or the mover chain. And when we look at that, we summarize it in a way that we understand it. But that doesn’t mean that the claims that we make about it are necessarily the case. [00:48:30]

And so causality is necessarily something that requires time, as does existence. It doesn’t mean anything for anything to exist for no time, and it doesn’t mean for something, to say that there’s causality absent time, because this is one thing following another. It’s necessarily temporal. And so even under a model like Aquinas’s, or under other models where they suggest that there is a God that exists outside of space and time, there is no explanation for how and why, what that even means, or how it can be a meaningful thing. [00:49:30]

Big Bang
Artist’s depiction of the Big Bang

Matt Dillahunty: It’s like asking what happened before the Big Bang. That may be a nonsensical question if, based on the models that we have, time begins with the Big Bang. And so the best that this can do is say, “Given this understanding of this model, it seems that there would need to be some sort of first cause,” but it doesn’t tell us anything about that first cause. And to presume that it must be a thinking agent that is somehow absent time has a number of problems with it, not the least of which is nobody’s bothered to demonstrate that that is in fact what is here, rather than … [00:50:00]

One of the questions that we were going to get to at some point is “What caused the laws of nature?” And you said, specifically, the mind that created them. I don’t understand how someone could come to the conclusion that it must’ve been created by a mind. Because the laws of nature are descriptive. Yes, they existed, the truth of them existed before there were thinking human beings within the universe and they existed before there were any thinking beings, as far as we can tell. But the physical laws are things … We describe them, but that’s us putting our language on something that is. Chemistry is, biology is. Physics is the basis for all of that. And to say that physics had to come from someone, or somewhere, is an assertion that I haven’t seen a demonstration for. [00:51:00]

Michael Egnor: Nothing you’ve said has anything to do with Aquinas’s First Way. Change is not dependent on time. In fact, Aquinas…

Matt Dillahunty: How can you have change without time?

Michael Egnor: Oh, sorry, causation has nothing to do with time.

Matt Dillahunty: How can you have causation without time? One thing follows another, that’s a causal chain, there must be some time where one thing precedes another.

Time concept. Hi-res digitally generated image.

Michael Egnor: No, the hylomorphic metaphysics of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas understand causes and effects as simultaneous. [00:51:30]

Matt Dillahunty: There is a model for simultaneous causation, which actually hasn’t been demonstrated.

Michael Egnor: No, no, the causes and effects are understood as happening at the same moment, at the same instant. There are other ways of understanding cause, for example, Hume’s way of understanding it, that is dependent on time, is notoriously a very inadequate way of understanding cause and effect. Hume’s problem with understanding cause and effect is that he brought time into it. [00:52:00]

But nothing you’ve said really has anything to do with Aquinas’s First Way, and the impossibility of infinite regress in an instrumental series of change.

Matt Dillahunty: How do you demonstrate the impossibility of infinite regress?

Michael Egnor: You demonstrate it by the fact that potency, possibility, is not actuality. And if you have an infinite series of possibilities in the past, with no actuality to start it, then nothing really exists. No causal chain can actually happen if everything is simply possible. That’s a logical conclusion from the argument. And in fact, it’s a scientific argument, meaning it’s an argument that has the same structure as any theory in science. That is, you take events that happen in the natural world — change, or the redshift to discover the Big Bang — and you follow a logical sequence to arrive at the most reasonable explanation for that phenomenon. The most reasonable explanation for the existence of change… [00:53:00]

Matt Dillahunty: No, that’s nonsense. That’s abductive argument.

Michael Egnor: Science and proofs of God’s existence follow the same logical structure. You take things that you observe in reality, you infer the best explanation for those things that you observe, that’s what natural theology is. That’s also natural philosophy, which is science. It’s all the same logical structure. [00:53:30]

Matt Dillahunty: That’s not the same. I don’t want to get off into a sidetrack between inductive and abductive arguments, because I think science in many cases relies on both of them, but largely is abductive. But if you begin with an observation, and you infer the most likely explanation, you don’t get to include undemonstrated things in your candidate explanations. If we find a dead body, we start listing off, “What are the probably explanations for this dead body?” We don’t get to include magic in that explanation. [00:54:00]

Michael Egnor: Correct. So could you explain to me what is the singularity that caused the Big Bang?

Matt Dillahunty: I have no idea.

Note: The Big Bang singularity is the point at which “In the 1960s, Hawking and the Oxford University physicist Roger Penrose proved that when space-time bends steeply enough, such as inside a black hole or perhaps during the Big Bang, it inevitably collapses, curving infinitely steeply toward a singularity, where Einstein’s equations break down and a new, quantum theory of gravity is needed.” Generally, at a singularity, conventional explanations break down. – Quanta

Michael Egnor: But that’s a scientific conclusion…

Matt Dillahunty: Yes, and I’m not a scientist, and the fact that something is a scientific conclusion…

Michael Egnor: Scientists can’t…

Matt Dillahunty: Do I get to finish my thought at all?

Michael Egnor: Well, yeah, but your thought is nonsense. Scientists don’t have …

Matt Dillahunty: Oh, well thank you for cutting right to the chase for everybody, if we’re just going to…

Michael Egnor: Scientists don’t have an explanation for the singularity, because a singularity is not definable. That’s the whole point of it. A singularity is a solution to the equations of general relativity, where there is division by zero. That means it’s undefined. What led to the Big Bang was a singularity. That’s widely accepted in science, except nobody knows what a singularity is. A singularity isn’t even a natural thing. So cosmology, basic physics, uses inferences to things that are supernatural. A singularity is not in nature, and science uses it routinely. There’s nothing wrong with transcending nature to explain events within nature. We do it all the time. That’s what science is all about. [00:55:30]

Note: Division by zero leads to undefined numbers so calculations cannot be pursued beyond that point (a singularity).

Matt Dillahunty: No, actually, you don’t. You don’t get to transcend what is demonstrable as a candidate explanation. You have to show that this is a candidate explanation. And so, when we’re talking about Big Bang cosmology, when you say, “What caused the Big Bang?” And I say, “I don’t know,” I’m not convinced that anyone knows at this point. And the fact that we don’t have an answer or an explanation for something, does not mean that a supernatural explanation becomes plausible as a replacement while we don’t have that.

It’s the reason why we used to think Thor or Zeus threw lightning bolts, and now we don’t. Any time we don’t have a scientific explanation for something — something that is grounded in evidence and observation, something that is testable and detectable — we don’t, then, just get to say, “Ah, there’s not currently a natural explanation, therefore a supernatural one will do.”

You would still have to demonstrate the truth of that supernatural explanation, and we currently don’t have any way, unless you know of one, and clearly you at least … Well, I don’t know how anybody could demonstrate the truth of any supernatural explanation, because all of them are God of the gaps in the sense that, “Here’s something we don’t know, we’re going to insert a supernatural explanation for.” [00:56:50]

Singularity in deep space
artist’s impression of a singularity in deep space

Michael Egnor: Well, again, singularities are supernatural. They are not natural.

Matt Dillahunty: I would argue that the singularity as described is natural. It is the entirety of the natural universe. [00:57:00]

Michael Egnor: All right, then what is a singularity? If you’re saying it’s natural, what is it?

Matt Dillahunty: So first of all, you’re not talking to a cosmologist, but the…

Michael Egnor: Then why do you say it’s natural?…

[Things became quite animated at this point.]

Matt Dillahunty: [00:58:00] I’ve tried to answer it, every time I open my… Say one more [bleep]…

Next: Is Matt Dillahunty using science as a crutch for his atheism? That’s Egnor’s accusation. Stay tuned.

The complete debate, with transcripts and notes:

Two chess knights facing away from each other
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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?
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.

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5. Egnor, Dillahunty Dispute the Basic Causes Behind the Universe