Friday, July 13, 2012

Debate Review: Matt Slick v. Eddie Tabash

Today I listened to the 2009 debate between Christian apologist Matt Slick and atheist lawyer Eddie Tabash. I've previously heard Slick debate Matt Dillahunty on the Atheist Experience, and I also heard Tabash's 1999 debate with William Lane Craig, so I was interested to see how these two would square off. Before listening to the debate, my impression of Matt Slick was pretty neutral. Having read a couple of his articles and having heard him on AE, I considered him an intelligent, passionate, but nonetheless likeable person who I just disagree with. This impression persisted throughout the opening statement of Slick's debate with Tabash, but would not last.

Interestingly, Matt opens with a single argument for the existence of god. Yes, you read that right: one single argument. I've listened to William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, and many other theists defend the existence of god, and they typically provide a minimum of three distinct arguments. Obviously, Slick believes his solitary argument to be so forceful and effective that he was willing to rest his entire case on it; a centuries-old and frequently debated question addressed by only a single argument. Imagine how complex and persuasive such a thing must be. Then prepare your palm to meet your face as you learn that Slick puts all his chips on the cosmological argument.

Matt spends much of his opening statement knocking down ideas like an actual infinite, an impersonal cause, and an oscillating universe, so that he might preempt objections to his argument. I will discuss these issues in a moment, but for now I only want to say that Slick's first speech was conducted professionally, despite it involving just one single argument. From here, I thought, "this should be a good debate." As Tabash made his opening statement, I continued to believe it. Eddie announced up front that he would provide his arguments against the existence of god and then address Matt's argument in his rebuttal. Unlike Matt, he defined what he was arguing against (god is a "supernatural personality"), and proceeded to offer several arguments for naturalism and against the supernatural.

Following Tabash's opening remarks, things get ugly, and fast. Slick needlessly gripes about Tabash not addressing his argument, which, as already noted, Eddie said he would save for his rebuttal. In a ridiculously dramatic imitation of David Caruso, Matt whips off his glasses and questions if the audience would rather hear logic or emotion during the debate. For a third round of superb missing-the-point irony, Matt brings up a debate between Tabash and Phil Fernandes, wherein he counted the number of questions Tabash posed to his opponent, drawing on this to supposedly illustrate that asking a lot of questions is not a rebuttal or logical presentation of a case.

Slick's fanciful summary of Tabash's opening statement is nothing short of grossly dishonest. Eddie proposes the argument from divine hiddenness, he argues for mind-brain reductionism, contends that a being with no physical attributes cannot interact with the physical world, and makes a few other claims that are not questions, nor are they emotional appeals. Tabash is in the habit of using questions to illustrate his points, but this is no fallacy, and it is something that Slick does too. Throughout the debate, Matt bemoans a thematic focus on morality, claiming that it is irrelevant to the existence of god. In some contexts it is, but when the god you defend is understood as a perfectly moral being, then the reality of evil and suffering presents a real problem. Indeed, it seems to make little sense that god, defined as the greatest possible being, or in any other popular manner, would be anything less than perfectly good. Tabash's reference to the problem of evil/suffering is far from irrelevant.

Unfortunately, smear tactics are relatively common in debates, particularly those on such heated subjects as the existence of god. Matt's misrepresentation of his opponent's opening speech is not as surprising as what he uses it to segway into next. Atheism, he declares, leaves people "intellectually bankrupt." How does he know this? Well, he's debated atheists before, on his radio show and his website. He's seen all their arguments, he says, and they don't hold up. Furthermore, Matt claims, he can answer "every single one of the questions" Eddie's got. So why doesn't he? What better place for it than a debate? Instead, Slick seems to prefer making absurd generalizations and grand assurances. What's worse is that he engages Tabash's arguments by asking questions, the very thing he criticized Eddie for doing. Yet in Slick's case, the questions he asks are hardly illustrative. "How do you know?" he asks in response. Matt doesn't seem to grasp that probability, and not mere possibility, is what needs to be established in the question of god's existence.

Matt's rebuttal basically consists of misrepresenting Tabash, making unwarranted generalizations about atheists, and flaunting his experience as an apologist, as if it gives him instant credibility or victory. He invites Tabash to study his diagram of the cosmological argument, to have a bible study with him, and so on, and yet anyone paying attention will easily notice that for all his pomp and repetition, Mr. Slick doesn't actually address any of Eddie's arguments in his rebuttal. He attempts to sweep all of it aside by asserting that asking questions somehow fails to accomplish anything. When Eddie's questions cut to the heart of the problems behind theistic claims about god, or when they help to underscore the naturalistic arguments against god, Matt is just being irresponsible in his retort.

On the other side of things, Tabash demonstrates how to conduct a real rebuttal in his response to Slick. Right off the bat, Eddie challenges the Christian's ability to ascertain moral values, exposing how Divine Command Theory excludes human reason from morality and arbitrarily assigns value to the mere decrees of god. Next, he begins dismantling Slick's cosmological argument by noting how Matt invents "god time" to try and get around the incoherence of having a cause before time (and causality) began. Slick distinguishes god as an ontologically prior cause, rather than a temporally prior cause, but this in no way dodges the problem. Ontology is the study of being, or existence, and thus an ontologically prior cause is the very same thing as a temporally prior cause, because a cause before existence would also entail that the cause is before time. This imaginary god time where the cosmological argument magically escapes the problem of a "pre-causality" cause is, as Tabash rightly points out, only the wishful thinking of Mr. Slick, and it's entirely ad hoc.

To comment on the alternate ideas Slick tried to knock down in his opening statement, I will say I believe that his objections are without basis. On the notion of actual infinities, a question is asked of Matt during the Q&A about whether he denies that integers are actual infinities. Matt tries to sidestep the question by repeating his point: "I wasn't talking about integers..." At least William Lane Craig has addressed this issue, in his essay, The Finitude of the Past and the Existence of God, but his response exposes a questionable assumption. Craig argues that the mathematical world is separate from the physical world, and so infinities in mathematics are potential rather than actual infinities. However, this separation of the mathematical and physical worlds seems to presuppose a kind of Platonic realism. Many mathematicians, like Georg Cantor, have argued that there is more of a connection between these two worlds than we might realize. Craig's favored example of the Hilbert Hotel may also have an answer in W.V.O. Quine. The reason we find it absurd to think of adding or subtracting infinities could simply be in the context and how we've defined infinity. While words like "married" and "bachelor" function just fine on their own, a married bachelor becomes incoherent not by any conspiring force, but because of how we've defined the words. Putting an infinite against another of itself in such a way might not show us anything other than the limits of language. Thus, I am not yet prepared to grant the premise that actual infinities cannot exist.

Matt's argument against an oscillating universe is also presumptuous. Tabash notes that physicist Victor Stenger finds the notion of an oscillating universe perfectly consistent with the 2nd law of thermodynamics, because the universe is expanding, which indicates it is not a closed system. The objection is also raised that an infinite regress of events is impossible, but once again this may be nothing more than the difficulty of the human mind to grasp the concept of infinity when applied to certain phenomena. Nonetheless, the atheist is not obligated to claim either of these two possibilities, or to claim Matt's third example of an impersonal cause. Matt says that another option of "something I don't know yet" is not an option, because the dichotomy is that the universe either had a beginning or it didn't. Even so, Slick fails to provide any reason for excluding other unknown alternatives - how can he do this when they're unknown? He's perfectly comfortable asking "how do you know?" when the atheist makes some assertion about god, but when the atheist asks the same of Matt's bold statements regarding the universe's origins, he is met with ridicule and an exceedingly weak response. There is no shame in admitting "we don't know" when we truly do not know. Again, the subject of the debate is whether or not god exists, not if god is possible, or if assuming his existence is rationally justifiable.

Next, the debate moves into questions between the two debaters, followed by audience questions before the closing statements. Many times over the course of the night, Matt fallaciously claims that atheists have no right to assert moral values because we are all "just" animals, "just" a bunch of atoms, etc. He ignores that we are a very unique assemblage of atoms and matter, and it is this assemblage that lends significance to differentiate us from other animals. We have a more developed consciousness and can thus perceive of crimes like rape and murder, whereas other members of the animal kingdom lack this ability. Slick proudly touts the doctrine of being made in the image of god while he carelessly dismisses the bible's numerous examples - slaughter of the Amalekites, murder of the firstborn Egyptians, stoning of disobedient children - showing just how little that doctrine meant to god and god's people. Matt is content to raise morality to charge atheists with inconsistency in their worldview, but the instant Tabash brings morality in to question theistic ethics and the biblical god, Mr. Slick cries foul.

The only other moment from the Q&A worth commenting on is Tabash's stellar response to the fine-tuning argument. When we think about the constants of the universe that teeter so perilously on the edge of supporting life, why do we find this evidence of design? Imagine a computer programmer who designed a program with coding so unstable that if any other program ran simultaneously, it would crash. Would we call this good design? Not at all! As living organisms, we ought to expect to find that we exist in a universe conducive to life. But if an intelligent, all-powerful, and all-knowing being created us, we might expect it would not produce a design with such potential for absolute failure. Fine-tuning is easily explicable under a naturalistic, evolving universe, but under an intelligently designed universe it hardly makes sense.

In his closing statement, Slick rails against atheists once more, claiming that they don't do their homework on Christian issues and biblical theology. It would have been wise for Matt to cite some examples at this point, but yet again he just makes bare and unsupported assertions. If Mr. Slick wants to keep track of the questions Eddie asks in a debate, perhaps someone should start keeping track of how many times he invokes his own experience/"credentials" in a debate. I counted at least 4 separate times where he mentions how he's debated many atheists, read atheist books, how atheists refuse to learn from their discussions with him, and how he's been an apologist for so many years. He arrogantly suggests 3 to 1 would be a good match of atheists to deal with his rigorous Christian "logic" and invites atheists to come knock the chip off his shoulder.

By contrast, Tabash's closing statement shows why he gave William Lane Craig a run for his money. Rather than attacking his opponent, generalizing about all Christians, or puffing out his chest, Eddie responds to Slick's closing remarks, summarizes his own points in the debate, and notes how Matt failed to adequately engage his arguments, instead clutching to his single cosmological argument "like a drowning man in the ocean holding on to one piece of driftwood." The careers of these two men can interestingly predict how they do in this debate. Tabash debates like a lawyer, building a cumulative case and dealing with the arguments; Slick performs like a radio host, making bold statements and peddling his own favorite product, but ultimately consisting of big talk and little substance.

At the beginning of this review, I noted that my impression of Matt Slick changed after hearing this debate. Throughout it he committed a number of logical fallacies, while boasting of his superior logical skills, alleging that atheists are intellectually bankrupt, and claiming that he has been able to refute all the arguments brought to him by atheists. He misrepresents his opponent's position, generalizes and stereotypes, and claims to have the only rational foundation for morality as he also ignores challenges brought against scripture and biblical theology. For all the frustration atheists receive from the religiously-perpetuated stereotype that all atheists are pinnacles of arrogance, Mr. Slick makes some of the most abrasive atheists pale in comparison. You get the feeling that if we were living in the 18th century, Matt would have been whacking Eddie on the head with his bible during his part of the debate.

Perhaps this has also changed my impression of Mr. Tabash too, though. Despite enduring over an hour of vicious maligning, brazen arrogance, and fallacy after fallacy, Eddie never loses his composure or resorts to petty comebacks. He deals only with the arguments, and only discusses his opponent and Christians in general when relevant to the debate. In a final show of good will that I'm not sure I could have mustered, at the end of the closing speeches, Tabash walks right over to Slick to shake his hand and give him a hug. It may come across to some as a bit patronizing, after Eddie clearly wiped the floor with Matt, but it's nonetheless far more courtesy than our good Christian showed the intellectually bankrupt, immoral atheist.

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