A few years ago, Sye Ten Bruggencate debated Matt Dillahunty over the question of: "Is it reasonable to believe that God exists?" This was definitely not your traditional atheist vs. Christian debate, and that's because Sye is a presuppositional apologist. If you're not aware of what that means, boy are you in for a treat today—and by a treat, I mean reasons to bang your fucking head against the wall!
Presuppositional apologetics is a strand of religious argumentation that, at first glance, might seem confusing, intimidating, and perhaps even convincing. But when you break down the arguments and take a careful look at them, it becomes clear that there is just nothing to this line of reasoning.
In his opening remarks, Sye argued the following:
"You need to be able to know what's ultimately real to know what's true. I submit that you can't know what's ultimately real without revelation from God. How do I know what's real? The same way all of you do: Revelation from the God that all of you know exists. Christians profess that truth; professed atheists suppress it. You see, becoming a Christian is not a matter of going from unbelief to belief; it's a matter of going from suppressing the truth to professing it."
He claims that everybody, including atheists, know, deep down, that God exists, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that I don't actually know this. And I have a pretty good window into my own mind on this point, because if you weren't already aware, I am me. The very reason that I'm an atheist is because I don't think there's sufficient evidence to believe that a God exists. In announcing my disbelief, I'm suppressing God like I'm suppressing Santa Claus.
Could you imagine being audacious enough to claim that everybody who says they don't believe something actually does believe that thing? Sye is basically saying that he knows more about what you believe than you do—and this is absurd, because nobody knows better about the internal workings of your sick and twisted mind than you do. The only way Sye could reasonably make this claim would be if he was capable of reading minds, and although he does look like an alcoholic version of Professor X, this does not strike me as very likely.
"How do I know what's real? The same way all of you do: Revelation from the God that all of you know exists."
Really, so what Godly revelations have I overlooked lately? Was I just not paying attention when Jesus appeared before my eyes and said "What's up, bitch? I'm real." Come to think of it, not long ago, I do recall being in a trance-like state while feeling a warm, tingly sensation in body. Some call that The Holy Spirit; I call it smoking too much weed while playing videogames.
Another component of his argument is that we simply profess non-belief because we want to sin. As he so uneloquently puts it in his closing remarks:
"See that's your offer, that's the offer: Jesus Christ, or absurdity. But you'll probably walk out of here choosing absurdity because you love your sin."
Here's my question: If the punishment for professed non-belief and a life of sin is excruciating torture for an infinite period of time, what person would make the extremely irrational decision of saying "I'm going to put up with never-ending torture in the afterlife for a few decades of godless sin?"
This is a calculation that makes zero rational sense: 70, maybe 80 years of godless enjoyment verses an infinite period of torture? Not just a million years of torture, not just billions of years, but an infinite period of torture? If, as Sye asserts, we truly knew that a God existed and that hellfire awaits us—not just that we believed this or had a suspicion, but we truly, deep-down knew it more strongly than we know that the sky is blue—zero people would make the foolish decision to live a short, finite life of sin if the punishment for this that we knew awaited us was infinite torture. So from this, it follows that we're professing non-belief because we genuinely don't believe.
By analogy, imagine you're being held captive in a North Korean prison where cameras are watching you at every moment and your every movement is scrutinized. Your captors make very clear to you that if you attempt to steal food, they will torture you for years and then kill you, and the seriousness of this rule becomes plain to you when you see dozens of prisoners tortured and executed in front of you for this very violation.
According to Sye, here is what the atheist is doing: Despite clear, inward knowledge of their circumstances, not only are they deciding to steal food, but they're outwardly, verbally denying the very existence of the prison they're being held within as well as the existence of their captors and the punishments they mete out. This is not a decision that any person interested in avoiding torture or death would make if they truly knew that these would be the consequences of their decision. So it's ridiculous to argue that this is what the atheist is doing.
"No one becomes a Christian and says 'what do you know, there is a God.' You see, God doesn't send people to hell for denying what they don't know, but for their sin against the God they do know. Is it reasonable to believe that God exists? Yes, yes it is. Why? Because it's true that God exists, and denial of that claim reduces one's worldview to absurdity. Matt says that truth is that which comports with reality, he admits he can't know what's ultimately real, therefore, according to his worldview, he can't know anything to be true, and has zero basis for challenging my claim that it's reasonable to believe that God exists."
If this sounds like a bunch of incoherent nonsense to you, welcome to the world of presuppositional apologetics!
I think the reason he makes this argument—that atheists actually know that God exists—is, in part, because it's an attempt to rationalize what is the most plainly immoral Christian belief: that you will be tortured for eternity for not believing or doing the correct things—even if you didn't know any better and even if you were believing what you thought was most rational. I think that becomes clear when, later in the debate, Sye says the following:
"Matt: God makes it so that we all know he exists. What do you mean by know? Just that we're aware that God exists?
Sye: You have sufficient knowledge of God for your condemnation."
By claiming that we know that God actually does exist, this is a way to shift the blame of this extremely twisted system off of the God who presides over this system and onto the person who is the victim of this system. In Sye's view, hellfire is not a simple matter of disbelieving; it's the consequences of willful rejection.
But even if we granted that Sye was correct about this—that we truly do know that God exists and that we nonetheless reject him—this still wouldn't justify or suddenly make ethical a system of infinite torture in the afterlife. If there is one single argument that comes closest to completely refuting the idea of a Christian hell, it is this: There is no finite crime that can justify infinite punishment. Thus, the penalty of infinite torture for the finite crime of disobeying God's rules or wishes is simply incompatible with a just and moral God. Only a wicked monster would create and supervise a system like this.
Sye claims that denying God's existence reduces one's worldview to absurdity. Why? Apparently because without believing in a God, you can't know what's ultimately real, therefore you can't have absolute certainty that anything is true, and therefore you also can't challenge Sye's claim that a God exists. Here I think he's just clearly playing a word game that might seem intimidating on first glance, but doesn't survive a closer inspection.
Yes, the atheist can't say, for certain, that our experience is not actually the product of some Matrix-like simulation. This is the problem of hard solipsism that Matt concedes in the debate we can't solve. But within the universe that we perceive ourselves as experiencing, we can still do and believe rational and irrational things.
Ultimately, we might all be living in a simulation, but within this simulation, if I smash my hand with a hammer, I'm going to be in excruciating pain. So there are still consequences for our actions, and there are still reasonable and unreasonable decisions. Nobody is ever going to say: "Well, I can't say for certain that we're not living in a simulation, so maybe I should just slam my fucking car into a brick wall and see what happens?"
The same could be said about beliefs: Within the simulation, it's reasonable to believe that the sun is at the center of our solar system, and it's appropriate to describe this as a fact. And within the simulation, it could be unreasonable to believe that a God exists, so Sye is simply mistaken when he claims that the atheist "has zero basis for challenging [his] claim that it's reasonable to believe that God exists."
Sye claims that "You need to be able to know what's ultimately real to know what's true." This is something that I would reject. Within the universe as we experience it, it is true to say that the sun is at the center of our solar system. Perhaps we can't know, with absolute certainty, that our solar system indeed does exist as we experience it—and perhaps our entire perception of the solar system is just the product of computer programming or electrical stimulation of our captive brains—but just because you can't be absolutely certain about beliefs doesn't mean that these beliefs are therefore unreasonable and doesn't make them false.
"Well, as you can see here in this research we've published, the new drug causes tumors to shrink by over 50%."
"Oh yeah? Well can you prove that we're not all living in a simulation? Haha! Therefore you can't say it's true that the drug actually has this effect!"
How do you think these researchers would react here?: "Great point, sir!", or "Who let the crazy person into the press conference?" Nobody operates like this or thinks like this in their daily lives, and it would be ludicrous if they did.
I'm just imagining Sye getting pulled over for speeding, and as the cop's writing him a ticket, he's trying to argue his way out of it by saying things like: "You say I was speeding: How do you even know that the world exists? What if we're all just brains in a vat and me speeding is merely an illusion? Maybe you're just writing me this ticket because you love your sin?"
And the cop's like: "Sir, please just put your pants back on."
The final thing I'll say on this point is: perhaps it is possible that we're living in a simulation. But the thing is, there's no convincing evidence that we are, so it makes sense to operate as if the universe we experience is the universe that exists and to make decisions and adopt beliefs in accordance with the way that this universe is.
"Matt agrees that his view on logic is the result of the chemical reactions in his brain. I mean would you come here today and listen to a debate, it was a bottle of Dr. Pepper arguing against a bottle of Mountain Dew: You shake them up and you open them and they start to fizz. Which of those fizzes would be true? Neither. It's just fizz."
Well I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the inner workings of our complex brain is not the same thing as fizz from a bottle of soda. Fizz is not capable of thinking, perceiving, or using language to communicate and express ideas; our brains are. If this is the kind of junky comparison that you're seriously making, I question whether your brain has genuinely been replaced by a bottle of Dr. Pepper!
"If Matt's worldview is true, then our brains are just evolved meat machines, and our thoughts are the byproduct of the chemical reactions in our evolved brains. It's brain barf. He would be fizzing atheistically, I'm fizzing theistically, and you wanna know which one of those is true? You can't get truth from that."
Yes, our brains have been evolved, and our thoughts are the product of these evolved brains. Is this supposed to be some kind of clever point of refutation? Because all you're doing is stating the obvious. Being the product of evolution doesn't somehow make all of our thoughts non-rational or untrustworthy. If I tell you that Sye's arguments make me want to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, the fact that my brain is the product of evolution doesn't make that a false statement.
Why would evolution necessarily create untrustworthy, irrational brains? In order to allow the species to survive, presumably these brains would have to be functioning pretty adequately! And I see no reason why divine creation would be a guarantee of cognitive perfection. Spend five minutes listening to some televangelist babble, and that's all the proof you need that God made some serious mistakes when creating the human brain! Couldn't a God create imperfect brains? What if he just half-assed it because he wasn't that interested? What if he did a crappy job just because he thought it'd be funny to see the results?
"Debates presuppose truth. Matt says truth is that which corresponds to reality. Matt admits he can't know what's real. Everything he says so far is borrowing from my worldview. You can't know anything to be true unless you start with God. Everyone here knows that God exists."
"Everything he says so far is borrowing from my worldview." Really? So when I say that the Bible is a work of ridiculous fiction, I'm actually borrowing from a worldview grounded within that work of ridiculous fiction? Please explain to me how that works.
It'd be like if a scientist published a study, other scientists pointed out the many flaws in his research and reasoning, and the scientist responded by saying "In order to even reject the findings of my study, you must first actually accept the findings of my study." It's just a word-game and it's completely nonsensical. It's almost as if the goal of presuppositional apologetics is to get people so confused that they start believing in God. It reminds me of the ontological argument in that sense.
"You can't know anything to be true unless you start with God."
The problem is that he's using this weird definition of truth, where things can only be described as true if you are absolutely certain about them. Given the potential that some kind of Grand Deceiver might exist, we can't be absolutely certain about anything, so this is a foolish standard to have. If we use a less restrictive definition of truth, we actually can know many things to be true, and therefore our worldview does not reduce to absurdity.
But even if the atheistic worldview did reduce to absurdity, this wouldn't make it inaccurate, nor would prove that a God necessarily exists. As Matt pointed out in the debate, this is simply an appeal to consequences.
Sye brings up these abstract, esoteric, philosophical difficulties like the problem of hard solipsism, whether we can ever really say that we know something to be true, and he's like "Haha, you can't solve these difficulties." So what? What if we can't solve some of these difficulties? Maybe we just live in a godless universe where certain philosophical questions are fundamentally unresolvable?
I also don't see how appealing to a God solves anything here. He points out that the atheist can't solve the problem of hard solipsism, but apparently, what, the theist can? An audience member asks him to provide his disproof of hard solipsism, and his answer is far from convincing:
"Questioner: What is your disproof [of hard solipsism]?
Sye: Revelation from God."
Really, revelation from God. So how does this process work? When you're sitting in front of the fireplace late at night, does God softly whisper into your ear that we're not all brains in a vat and does he assure you that we're not living in a Matrix-like simulation? What if he's lying to you? What if you're being deceived by God? Or what if it's actually Satan presenting himself to you as God? How could you reliably distinguish between the two?
What if you're not actually receiving a revelation from God, but you're just hallucinating? Plenty of insane people over the years have claimed that God was speaking to them; do we also trust the first-hand godly encounters of the serial killer? And if not, on what grounds do you reject their religious testimony while claiming yours is genuine? Couldn't they claim the exact opposite: that theirs is genuine and yours is the fake one? There is no testable, reliable way to verify these first-person religious experiences, so there's no good reason to trust them—especially if you're a third party who's simply being told about another person's alleged experience.
And how could appealing to God possibly solve the problem of hard solipsism? If we were living in a simulation, couldn't the simulators just simulate the experience of a God communicating with you? Couldn't it be built into the simulation that a God comes to you and says "you're not in a simulation" in a manner that feels very convincing to you? The appeal to God in this case solves absolutely nothing.
Sye purports to have a way out of these difficulties, however: according to him, God has revealed things to him in a way that he can be certain.
"Matt: You've said that God reveals things to you in such a way that you can be certain. . . . How does that work?
Sye: That would be a very good question if you could know that you're not a brain in a vat. . . ."
So he completely dodges the question, prompting Matt to ask once again:
"Matt: How is it possible for God to reveal things to you in such a way that you can be certain?
Sye: Because he's God. God can do that."
You'll be shocked to hear that I'm not convinced by this. He claims that he's certain, but merely professing certainly doesn't mean that these alleged revelations are actually genuine. How strongly a person believes something is not a measurement of how true that thing is. You can find plenty of people who will express to you how certain they are that they were abducted by aliens; should we therefore believe them?
And again, I'm sure that the crazed, religious serial killer would also claim certainty that God is communicating with him. Why don't Sye and I take a trip down to the insane asylum sometime and have a nice chat with a straitjacket-wearing lunatic in a padded cell to hear all about his profound revelations from Jesus Christ?
Plenty of Muslims or members of other religions completely at odds with Christianity would also claim the same things about their God—and presumably Sye would reject these testimonies, but if all we're doing is making unsubstantiated assertions, on what grounds would he do so, and how is the impartial observer expected to distinguish between these contradictory testimonies?
Sye claims that he is certain about the authenticity of God's revelations to him; ok, and I can claim certainty that he's full of shit. So now what? He says "Aha! But I have God on my side!" Ok, and what if someone says "I also have God on my side, and he tells me that you're extra wrong!" Appealing to God in this way doesn't get us anywhere and it doesn't actually solve any of the difficulties that Sye claims it does.