A Recap of the Debate with Chris Bolt

EDIT: Chris has responded to this blog entry here.

A few weeks ago, Chris Bolt and I held an over-internet debate on the existence of God (audio, transcript). He and Brian Knapp proved to be gracious hosts, and I came away from the event having had a splendid time of it, and with the impression that they both felt similarly. More than just having a fun time, however, I learned a great deal both in my preparation for and during the debate. In all respects, then, I'm very happy with how things turned out. At some point in the future, we may try our hands once again at persuasion, perhaps picking up where we left off. In the mean time, this blog post aims to summarize some highlights from the debate, and to examine Mr. Bolt's two key arguments which he presented on that occasion. I do not intend to exhaustively criticize those arguments, but I will point out what I believe are serious problems with them.

During the debate, Mr. Bolt argued for the existence of God, whereas I expressed agnosticism on the subject, and explained why I found his presentation unconvincing. In particular, Mr. Bolt focused on two chief arguments: one for his preferred flavor of Christian theism, and a second against my own agnosticism. He also presented a number of counter-arguments to my responses. I will try to address most of these in this summary.

His argument for Christian theism was borrowed from Reformed apologist James Anderson:

• If theism is not the case, then one cannot account for the uniformity of nature presupposed by inductive reasoning;

• If one cannot account for the uniformity of nature presupposed by inductive reasoning, then beliefs based on inductive reasoning are not warranted;

• Beliefs based on inductive reasoning are warranted;

• Therefore, theism is the case. [18:05]

This argument succinctly captures the spirit of Mr. Bolt's claim that the existence of a supernatural creator-deity is the only satisfactory solution to the infamous problem of induction. Suggesting that deductively valid inferences must underlie all our reasoning, he pointed out that we nontheists have no such justification for our use of induction. According to Mr. Bolt, nontheism leads us to a paradox, since inductive reasoning is deductively invalid without the invocation of the Judeo-Christian deity Yahweh:

Reasoning invalidly is not reasonable at all; it is irrational. However, everyone reasons inductively. The conclusion is that humans are irrational. [10:35]

In response to this argument I offered two objections, the first of which is that we simply must use induction, because we have no other means of planning for action in the world; so, no epistemic "problem" of induction need cause us an abundance of concern. From the debate:

In short, to reject induction is to paralyze onesself with skepticism. So, to the extent that we don't want to be paralyzed, we simply have to go use induction. And if Mr. Bolt wants to remind us that we have no guarantee induction will hold, I'm happy to agree; but that won't change the fact that we haven't any other alternative. [45:55]

Several times during the debate, Mr. Bolt agreed that indeed it is "necessary" [75:40] for us to use induction. However, he argued that such an observation does not help us solve the problem of induction, pointing out that, on nontheism, "it's still unsupported, regardless of its alleged necessity for inferences" [60:50]. However, he appeared not to take my point that such an epistemic problem does not threaten nontheism, and that we can live comfortably with a non-epistemic justification for induction. He furthermore complained that even if we have a non-epistemic solution now, only induction will allow us to apply that solution to the future, in which case, he argued, we will be guilty of circular reasoning. So, even though he agreed that we must use induction, he concluded that, on nontheism, we cannot "know" [61:20] that we must use it, remarking, "that this assumption has been necessary for past inferences does not require that it be necessary for future inferences" [61:00].

However, I don't find this terribly threatening, either. It's quite true that we need induction to draw the conclusion that induction is required for acting in the world. If this seems like a case of circular reasoning, remember that I'm not trying to reach induction from some more primitive position. Instead I want to point out that, from our current induction-using perspective, we may recognize the fact that we simply can't give it up. Inductive reasoning is not something we can just discard if it grows too uncomfortable for us. So it's not as if we have a choice to make---as if we must decide whether or not to continue to use induction. Rather, we simply will do so, because we have no alternative. In other words, we have no need to keep on seeking an epistemic justification for induction, because, from our position of using induction, we see that we are utterly unable to respond to the results of whatever search we perform.

My second objection to Mr. Bolt's argument for the existence of God pointed out that theism is just as ill-equipped as nontheism to answer the epistemic problem of induction. I said:

If we want to justify our assumptions, for example our assumption of induction, then it won't do to invoke new assumptions, unless those new assumptions are themselves justified. In other words, it doesn't help us to trade in one unjustified assumption for another, because if that's all we do, then we're still going to have unjustified assumptions on our hands. [28:20]

Mr. Bolt responded by offering "faith" as an alternative to induction, pointing out that whereas unjustified assumptions are unacceptable on a nontheist view, his version of Christian theism "provides for faith in our epistemic structure" [57:50]. With faith in the Testaments of the sixty-six-book Protestant Bible, we can get everything we need for reasoning, including induction. He continued:

So it's not the case that having assumptions is a problem for the Christian, though I would say that it is a problem for the rationalist---the non-Christian---who will not allow faith in an epistemology. [58:20]

And indeed I will not. "We should always question our assumptions," I said in the cross-examination period [34:15], adding that "I don't think that blind faith is ever a good idea" [36:00]. Even if faith were somehow a worthy means of knowledge---and I think it's fairly clear that it is not---why should we privilege it over induction? Why does faith need no justification, but induction does? In any case, it seems redundant to turn to faith in order to get for ourselves induction (even assuming we really can get induction from faith, which is not at all obvious) when we can simply accept induction directly.

In addition to his argument for the existence of God, Mr. Bolt also presented an argument against agnosticism:

• If God exists, then everyone knows that God exists;

• Mr. Wallis does not know that God exists;

• Therefore, God does not exist. [5:00]

Of course, here Mr. Bolt is assuming that the only "God" on the table is his own Reformed conception of Yahweh, the God of the sixty-six-book Protestant Bible. In response, I pointed out that, since I don't believe in God, any hypothesis which holds that I do believe in God must be false in that respect. So, I can rule out the existence of any God which is said to make all people believe in him, since I am living proof that such a God does not exist. From the debate:

[My unbelief] does contradict his view of God---absolutely, yes. So, if you want to be strict about it, yes, I'm denying that his particular idea of God exists, at least insofar as it includes the idea that I really believe in God, because I know that I don't! [67:10]

So it could be that there exists a God which does not enforce belief, such as the God of Islam or Judaism. It could be that the Biblical God exists, and that Mr. Bolt has simply misinterpreted Romans 1---the principal text from which he concludes that even self-described atheists believe in God. There are a myriad of such possibilities, none of which I can rule out. This is what makes me an agnostic; yet Mr. Bolt's argument overlooks that key point.

In sum, I think it's fairly clear that Mr. Bolt's argument for the existence of God, while undoubtedly clever, falls well short of convincing. His theistic reliance on faith is as epistemically unjustified as he claims is the nontheist's reliance on induction; and in any case we have no need of an epistemic justification since we are not in the position to make any actual decision on whether or not to continue to use inductive reasoning. We simply will use it, whether or not we think it's usable. Mr. Bolt's argument against agnosticism is still less satisfactory, as he ignores the plethora of possible creator-deities (including different conceptions of Yahweh) outside his own personal view. So, while I thank him for forcing me to think carefully about my position, I must remain agnostic to the existence of the Christian God.

NOTE: Chris Bolt also has his own blog, where we have already exchanged some thoughts regarding our debate.


Ben Wallis said…
I'm pleased to report that Chris took the time to respond to a comment I submitted to his own response to this post. However, he did not reproduce it in its original form, so I will now do so here (broken up into two parts):


Wow, thanks for the quick response! I'm surprised to see that here you have focused most on your argument against agnosticism, instead of your argument from inductive justification (which as I said before I thought was more promising, if unconvincing). However, I'm still not sure what it is you think you've proved by it. It seems like you might want to say that a person should not describe himself as an agnostic unless he is unsure about your particular conception of Yahweh. However, as I have reminded you, and as you have now acknowledged explicitly, yours is not the only conception on the table. For example, take the conception of God, let's call it Calvin* (Calvin-star) which is like yours in almost every respect except that Calvin* created a world where some people (e.g. myself) don't know that Calvin* exists. Indeed, I very much doubt the existence of Calvin*, and moreover, your argument against agnosticism doesn't work with respect to Calvin*:

(1') If Calvin* exists, then everyone knows that Calvin* exists;

(2') Mr. Wallis does not know that Calvin* exists;

(3') Therefore, Calvin* does not exist.

Clearly this argument is unsound since by definition (of Calvin*) the premise (1') is false. You seem to acknowledge this, instead suggesting that it is "irrelevant." However, if I can't rule out the existence of Calvin*, and there is no other God whose existence I accept, then am I not justified in calling myself an agnostic? You evidently think not, which I find quite strange...
Ben Wallis said…
...Perhaps you only want to say that in the CONTEXT OF OUR DEBATE we should only talk about your personal, particular conception of Yahweh, let's call it Calvin/Bolt. So I should not call myself an agnostic because it suggests that I am unwilling to deny Calvin/Bolt. Instead, you might suggest, I should openly deny the existence of Calvin/Bolt, and defend my denial.

Yet this is exactly what I did in the debate. I clearly stated that I do deny Calvin/Bolt, and defended my denial by pointing out that my own unbelief rules out his existence. After all, if Calvin/Bolt exists, then I believe that Calvin/Bolt exists. Since I do not believe that Calvin/Bolt exists, it follows that Calvin/Bolt does not exist.

But it does not follow that Calvin* does not exist.

Now, you object to this defense by pointing out that my argument is based on subjective experience, and arguments from experience are somehow unacceptable. However, please keep in mind that my argument is not aimed at convincing you (or anyone else for that matter) of the nonexistence of Calvin/Bolt, but only showing how it is that, from my subjective point of view, I can rationally deny the existence of Calvin/Bolt. After all, the existence of Calvin/Bolt has direct implications for my experience. If I can deny those implications, then I can deny by extension the existence of Calvin/Bolt. And while my denial may not be convincing to someone who does not share my subjective point of view (at least insofar as I am not a believer in Calvin/Bolt), I do not intend it to do so. It is quite sufficient for me to point out that there is no good reason to believe in Calvin/Bolt, even if other people lack the unbelief required to deny it in the way I can.

Of course, the reason for my unbelief in Calvin* is the lack of available warrant. I can't find any good reason to believe in Calvin*. Similarly, I take the position that you haven't found any good reason to believe in Calvin/Bolt. If you can't justify your belief in Calvin/Bolt, then I hope you will agree that you should give up that belief. Once you do so, then you will have the subjective point of view required to deny the existence of Calvin/Bolt. However, that won't matter very much to you, because you still won't be able to deny the existence of Calvin*, which is just like Calvin/Bolt in all the most important respects.


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