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Sunday, January 16, 2011

debate with Jamin Hubner on the existence of God

This past Thursday, 2011 Jan 13, I debated the Calvinist apologist Jamin Hubner, who according to his web page is the professor of theology at Jesus Bible Institute in Rapid City, SD, on the existence of God. You can listen to that debate online here, and read a transcript here. The debate was held over Skype, with moderator Joshua Whipps. Jamin is involved with Prof. James White's Alpha and Omega Ministries, though I do not know in what capacity (except that he blogs on their website). He's a presuppositionalist apologist, and has authored/edited at least three books on that subject in the past few years.

The debate went rather well, I think, for showing some key problems with presuppositionalism. Jamin's case for the existence of God was predictably vague, and the lengthy cross-examination periods allowed me to make that plain to the audience. On the other hand, I can hardly claim to have performed perfectly! Although I answered all of his central points, I did not always do so clearly, for instance when I implied but failed to explicitly state that what makes a judgment objective is its dependence on a standard, and not merely on a specific type of standard (e.g. a divine standard).

Even so, I think I successfully communicated my objections to Jamin's case. He had neglected to actually present any explicit argument for the existence of God, despite thinking himself to have done so. Instead---and just as I had predicted---he made a series of bold claims about the existence of God, to the effect that God explains all that we observe and experience, when nothing else can ever hope to do so. He declared in his opening statement,

Nothing can be explained---not facts, laws, biological information, the uniformity of nature, objective morality, the metaphysical preconditions of science, dogs, cats, or sauerkraut---nothing can be explained, let alone exist, without the Triune Creator of them all.


Anticipating this move, I told him in my opening statement that

this kind of rhetoric would be far more convincing if only it could be accompanied by an explanation of those lofty philosophical foundations which the presuppositionalist claims to have.


In other words, he needs to actually demonstrate how his presuppositions explain what he claims they explain, something he did not do in our debate. Moreover, he needs to show us why we always need such explanations, and also why we should think agnosticism disallows us from obtaining them. During our cross-examination, for instance, we had the following exchange:

WALLIS: Maybe I can't answer certain questions, but what about my inability to answer some particular question would lead you to believe that my views are inconsistent? [discussion of order]

HUBNER: Well, first of all, you believe that unanswered questions lead to inconsistency, otherwise why did you ask me to answer your unanswered question?

WALLIS: Again, let me clarify, I'm not suggesting that unanswered questions make for inconsistency.

HUBNER: Well I don't think you've ever asserted that unanswered questions makes for inconsistency. I think that assertions, multiple assertions that have no explanation and no foundation. And that has been demonstrated by unanswered questions. It's simply a demonstration that your world view really isn't much of a world view. It can't really be lived out. It can't function, except in terms of re-affirming self-autonomy.


In this way, he was unable to make the essential link between, on one hand, identifying unanswered questions on a secular view, and on the other hand, concluding that the secular view is somehow flawed, or that the Christian view is justified.

Beginning with his opening statement, and continuing throughout the debate, Jamin also stressed the following points (my paraphrase):

(1) We absolutely must presuppose the truth of the 66-book Protestant Bible.

(2) We should clearly perceive God when we look at creation.

(3) Christianity offers objective, infallible ethical and epistemological standards, when agnosticism relies on changeable and subjective standards.

(4) Nobody should listen to my attempts to address any such philosophical issues, because as an agnostic I can only state my own subjective opinion.


First and foremost, I reminded him that none of his assertions actually constituted, either individually or collectively, an argument for the existence of God. I took (1) to be a mere re-statement of the position which he needed to defend, and therefore in no need of a direct rebuttal. Rather, I answered it insofar as I pointed out that Jamin had failed to adequately defend Christianity.

Thesis (2) I took as an allusion to the teleological argument, and responded by explaining how we need to have some background of experience with the creative processes before we can learn to identify creative explanations. Since we have no recognizable experience with God or his manner of creative process, we are not in a position to detect divine purpose or creation. Jamin, in turn, responded by denying that he was appealing to the teleological argument. Instead, he told me, he simply believes that "creation presupposes the Christian creator," i.e. we can't make sense of the universe without presupposing the existence of Yahweh. Unfortunately for that position, however, he made no recognizable effort to defend it.

In response to (3), I pointed out that we have no guarantee God will not change his standard, and that furthermore we could easily capture an unchanging standard without appealing to God, if only we wished to do so. I also reminded him that no one standard is any more objective than another. In particular, I told him that

any claim that I make is going to appeal to some standard, sure. And, to the extent that it's a standard, it's objective. What else do we mean by "objective"? So I don't understand why you would suggest that my standard isn't objective.


With respect to (4), I told him that, first, we all have to use our own judgment, whether we are Christian or not, and, second, I'm not acting as an authority---that is, I expect people to weigh each issue for themselves, and not just take my word for it when I assert something.

In addition to those four points which I answered in some form or another, there was one other point which I let by. We may summarize it thusly:

(5) As an agnostic, I deny that I have any knowledge at all.


I was surprised he made this point, and essentially ignored it since there seemed to be more serious criticism to lend my attention. Needless to say, I only affirmed my agnosticism with respect to the existence of God. Of course, I know lots of things besides whether or not God exists! I have no idea why he thought otherwise, since I gave a detailed description of my agnosticism in my opening statement.

So, in sum, I believe I successfully rebutted his most serious and far-sweeping claims in favor of Christianity. After all, the only thing I really needed to do was to point out that he had not presented an argument, much less a good argument! His only defense to that very serious (I think) objection was that the substance of the argument had eluded me since its subject-matter ensured that it must be unlike any other, i.e. not deductive, inductive or abductive. I spent the rest of my time responding to miscellaneous objections to my agnosticism which he had (mistakenly) taken as relevant.

The only thing that really disappointed me about my performance was my hemming and hawing, and my occasional awkward pauses. I need to learn to speak more fluidly, and to master the art of rhetoric. Hopefully I will improve in that regard, for my next debate. Otherwise, I had a great time, and I hope Jamin felt the same. Moreover, I really hope he thinks carefully about the problems with his position, which seem to me to be abundantly obvious, yet which he---and many other presuppositionalists, it seems---somehow fails to recognize.

3 comments:

Owen said...

Hey, just happened upon this. Haven't heard/seen the debate, but I enjoyed your synopsis of it.

I doubt that Mr. Hubner is the best exponent of Presuppositionalism. In fact I don't doubt that they're hard to come by these days. Further, I doubt that that title is not unambiguous (Carl Henry was a presupp, so was Van Til, but they don't agree).

Jamin doesn't strike me as a philosopher, but rather a man very avid about his faith (Of course, so is everyone, including you.) It is my impression that it is a sort of fervency that he has that makes it very difficult for him to acknowledge either A) his inability do adequately defend presuppositionally, or B) the wantonness of presuppositionalism itself, or both. I'm inclined towards (A), with some sympathy for (B)... insofar as I still hold out some hope for some form of presuppositionalism (usually in the way of negative/internal critique, rather than a positive/argumentative project).

Anyway I enjoyed your summary of your debate.

best,
Owen.

hatsoff said...

Thanks Owen! I'm glad you enjoyed the blog post.

Paul Baird said...

I'm downloading the transcript. Have a look at the transcript of my debate with Presuppositionalist Sye TenBruggencate at http://patientandpersistent.blogspot.com/2011/03/second-debate-transcript-work-in.html