On Thursday, September 29, starting at 6PM, Christian apologist Sye Ten Bruggencate debated atheist Matthew Isaacs at CrossRoad Church in Georgetown, Indiana. I took the following notes during the debate. Except for the material in quotation marks, these are not direct quotes from the speakers. Much of what you read below involves summary statements. If anyone reading this was at the debate, I certainly welcome additions/corrections.
Joseph Spurgeon: Moderator: keep the applause/jeers until the end, so that the debate can be between Sye and Matthew.
Does God exist?
Sye [15 min.]:
“Jesus Christ is King.” Either “by choice or by force” every person will one day acknowledge this.
“I’m not here this evening to win this debate… I’m here merely to present the truth in what I hope is a loving way.”
Sye is, by profession, a factory worker.
Many who reject God demand evidence for His existence. Sye makes it clear that he will not be depending on various evidential proofs for God's existence.
Problems with evidentialism:
- We all already have evidence. If we assume that God has not given enough evidence, we are calling God a liar.
- Relying on evidence makes people the judge of God.
- We must all interpret the evidence that we are given; the beliefs that we bring to the evidence determine our interpretation
Instead of evidence, Sye focuses on the following line of thought: many reason quite well who say that they reject God; the question is: can they justify their reasoning?
Correspondence theory of truth: “truth is that which corresponds to reality.” This is the position taken by Matthew. Sye's response is that in order to know what is true, you would have to know what is real. To know what is real (vs. an illusion) one would have to either be God or receive revelation from God, “The proof that God exists is that without Him, you cannot prove anything.”
Matthew [15 min.]:
Matthew is with an organization called: “Reality and Reason.” The stated purpose of the organization is to bring the tools of philosophy to common people.
Matthew asserts that epistemology is where the discussion needs to happen. Matthew says he is not an anti-theist; he does not think Christians are stupid. Matthew claims that he used to be a Christian. “I don’t have an allegiance to atheism; I have an allegiance to truth.” “I once believed that there was a God who loved us and that He wouldn’t let people suffer more than what they can endure.” Matthew says that he used to think about theodicy, as a Christian, but it did not cause him to doubt. He follows this by saying that it did become a problem for him. Matthew claimed that the Bible promotes slaughtering parents and raping children. Matthew admits that Christians, based on Scripture, were instrumental in the abolitionist movement, but he wants to assert that Old Testament slavery laws make Scripture self-contradictory on this point.
“I believe ethics exist, I believe beauty exists, I believe truth exists.”
Matthew asserts that if we reason through the contradictions of Scripture, we are establishing religion on the basis of our reason rather than based on God’s revelation.
Sye [10 min.]:
“What we heard just now was not 15 minutes of a presentation arguing against the existence of God.” I heard a testimony about why he doesn’t like God.
“If you can reason out of your faith, it shows that God was not the Lord of your reasoning.”
Matthew is asking God to meet his burden of proof.
“To an atheist, there is no problem of suffering.”
“If evolution is true, our thoughts don’t give us truth and falsehood.”
“We’re familiar with suffering, but we know that there is a purpose.”
Matthew [10 min.]:
“I didn’t say that the Bible condones slavery.”
“I said that people take both things from it.”
“Numbers 31, you can just read."
“Sye is a presuppositionalist... I used to be one... I was more into Francis Schaeffer... [Re: Sye's presuppositionalist argument,] I do not think, fist and foremost, that Sye is being a trickster... [The way that presuppositionalist arguments work is that] you see presuppositionalism, because you are on their side [when it come to certain aspects of how presuppositions work].”
However, reasonable people know that becoming knowledgable means acquiring new knowledge.
“God is not the basis for knowledge; truth is the basis for knowledge.”
One of Sye’s premises is that he does not owe us evidence.
Knowledge exists on a spectrum. Knowledge is acquired in different ways. Example: preferences can’t be wrong; even if I am a brain in a vat, I know that I prefer cookies.
“I want to be clear that I’m not using logic to prove logic; I’m not using science to prove science.”
If I drop a pen and it flies upward, “our knowledge is incomplete.”
“Sye’s assertion is circular.”
Sye [5 min.]:
All claims to ultimate authority are necessarily circular.
How does anyone know to any degree of certainty that his reasoning is valid?
“Do all claims have to be falsifiable in order to be valid?” If yes, is that claim itself falsifiable?
Matthew [5 min.]:
We do not have to actually falsify the claim that all claims have to be falsifiable, we just have to be able to imagine what reality would be like if the claim were falsified. We can, to some degree, image falsifying the claim; reality itself would become chaotic.
The Bible is contradicted by obvious knowledge and experiences, for example:
Wine does not make the heart glad; it is a depressant.
God does not have His eye on the sparrow; species go extinct.
God does not reveal His wrath to the wicked; the wicked prosper all the time.
All modes of acquiring knowledge have to have something to check them against.
It is unreasonable to suggest that God’s existence is the basis of reason.
Cross examination, Sye of Matthew [10 min.]:
Sye: Can anything happen?
Matthew: I would doubt that all things are possible.
Sye: Give me an example of something you would consider impossible.
Matthew: a married bachelor.
Sye: what will prevent the language from changing to make it possible?
Matthew: apart from the language, it’s illogical.
Sye: can the laws of logic change?
Matthew: they can be modified.
Sye: what prevents logic from changing?
Matthew: it can be modified.
Sye: what prevents logic from changing?
Matthew: it’s axiomatic.
Sye: on what basis do you hold that the laws of logic do not change? What is your basis for assuming that logic will not change?
Matthew: logic may be able to be modified.
Sye: how do you know what’s actually real?
Matthew: my presupposition is that there are ways of knowing what is real.
Sye: how do you know a universal abstract invariant law?
Matthew: it would be in the universe…
Sye: how do you know anything is universally true?
Matthew: I can be sure I like cookies; I can be sure other minds exist.
Sye: before there were human minds to create language, could the universe have both existed and not existed in both the same time and in the same way?
Sye: logic is not, then, just a human construct.
Cross examination, Matthew of Sye [10 min.]:
Matthew: how do you know that you are not just dreaming?
Sye: Christians know it on the basis of God’s Word.
Matthew: do you use your eyes to read the Bible?
Sye: my eyes are the apparatus, but the methodology may remain mysterious.
Matthew: should we try to explore the apparatus?
Sye: Christians should be the only ones who can do science.
Matthew: in Numbers 31…
Sye: God does command genocide, but not rape.
Matthew: the text says, “Do with them what you will,” how is that not rape?
Sye: based on other Scripture, which expressly forbids rape, we know that rape is not intended. While it is not rape, even if (as it certainly not) it were rape, that would not be an argument against God, it would just mean that you do not like Him.
Matthew: [the point he seemed to be driving at was that the picture of God in Scripture, in his understanding, is self-contradictory]
Sye: we have a God who is both just and loving.
Cross examination, Sye of Matthew [5 min.]:
Sye: are all things known empirically?
Matthew: I’m not a logical positivist, but empirical information helps.
Sye: how do we know anything, if we do not know it empirically?
Matthew: I do not think that you can use one tool in the empirical toolbox to prove or disprove itself.
Sye [re: the assertion that all valid reasoning must be falsifiable, at least hypothetically]: in order to falsify your ability to reason, wouldn’t you need to have valid reasoning to apprehend that it has been falsified?
Matthew: we can be sure of many things; if my reasoning is invalid, things in the outside world still work.
Cross examination, Matthew of Sye [5 min.]:
Matthew: why is it that once science comes about, everyone’s view of a fixed earth changes?
Sye: I’m not sure that’s true. People can read the Scripture wrong.
Matthew: Jesus said, “If I bear witness of Myself, then my witness is not true.” That seems like a direct statement against pre-suppositionalism.
Sye: I don’t understand the question. I trust that there is a resolution to this question.
Closing argument, Sye [10 min.]:
Too many Christians give a terrible response to the problem of evil.
The answer to this problem does not lie in ‘free-will.’
The answer is not in the display of the goodness of God.
The reality of Heaven betrays these two answers.
The privation of good argument fails, because the question remains as to who controls whether good or an amount of good exists in a given situation.
“When horrible things happen, I trust that God has a plan for that.”
Closing argument, Matthew [10 min.]:
Matthew begins his closing argument by showing a picture of a starving child. He asserts that he is not appealing to emotion. A starving child illustrates that the universe is indifferent to us and that we should care for each other. Sye’s contention is that God is revealed to all of us and that if we do not see Him, then we are just suppressing it. Does God reveal Himself to the child who starves to death in Africa?
Matthew says that an image like that seen through Hubble makes him want to question whether there is a God, but the God we encounter in Scripture (to be real) has to be consistent and consistent with what we actually see in the world.
Q&A [30 min.]:
In the following notes, I first list the question posed to the debater from an audience member, then I give a summary of the debater's response, along with the response from the other debater (if the other debater responded). I may have missed some questions or parts of questions.
Sye: How do you define truth? "Truth is whatever conforms to the mind of God."
Matthew: Doesn’t you position make you the ultimate arbiter of what is true? [Matthew returned to speaking about theodicy and asserted that he had already been an atheist regarding other gods.] Sye: when he explains losing his faith; God did not meet Matthew’s standard.
Matthew: can you explain to me what is wrong with rape, if you are the ultimate authority? God, as presented in the Bible, was far away and detached, then He became a human and had a mood swing. The difference between us is that I don’t require a supernatural judge.
Matthew: can you prove that there is not a god? When it comes to the God in Christian Scripture, I am a hard atheist due to the law of non-contradiction. If I try my best to put into practice some parts of Scripture, then I run into other parts of Scripture.
Sye: if you were to put a child on an island with no literature, would he know about God? Yes, every person has sufficient knowledge for condemnation but not for salvation.
Matthew: you don’t believe in miracles? I don’t believe in the supernatural acting on the natural.
What about the sun being darkened during Jesus’ crucifixion, which is confirmed by extra-biblical sources? I see no reason to believe in scriptural miraculous accounts.
Matthew: couldn’t reasoning be a crypto-theism? I could see how someone could say that I worship truth. I don’t think reason is the ultimate authority; external reality is the ultimate authority.
Matthew: you believe in objectivity? Yes, but not in an Ayn Rand sense.
How do you determine who is good and who is bad? It’s not for me alone to determine who is bad and who is good.
Is it possible that your reasoning for what is good and bad is wrong? I can’t help but know that it would be wrong, without some massive utilitarian pay-off, to harm another human being.
Is it possible that your understanding that Romans 1 is wrong? Yes: as it stands right now, there are many parts of the Bible I have a problem with, and it would require massive evidence to convince me otherwise.
Matthew: what do you believe about Jesus, who would also cry out against injustice; what’s your stance on the historicity of the resurrection? I take no stance on the historicity of the resurrection. [At the end of the time he did say: “I don’t believe in the resurrection.] The writer “Paul” seems to present different pictures of Jesus at different times. I agree with you on the compassion heart of Jesus, but it runs counter to Joshua, where you can find so many killings. Sye: if the universe is indifferent, why isn’t Matthew?
Sye: do we have to believe that Jonah and the whale literally was true? That is not a prerequisite for salvation, but Jesus believed in Jonah, and I believe it is a slippery slope. Matthew: taking the Bible literally, if one is to take it at all, would seem to be the way to do it.
Matthew: you made multiple claims that you were previously a Christian, but the Bible says not to lean on your understanding; knowing that you decided to trust in yourself rather than God, how can you make the claim that you were actually a Christian? I literally, out of compassion, sold everything I own and gave it to the poor. Sye: whatever reason he gives, he must admit that God was not the foundation of his reasoning.
Sye: why should an atheist be convinced of the Christian God in particular? My position is that you already are.
How can you be sure that the Christian God is the one? I am sure the same way that you are, due to His revelation. Christianity is not going from unbelief to belief, but from suppressing the truth to accepting it. We should not argue over other religions when neither of us believe in those other religions.
Matthew: how do you know the Bible is not true? the law of non-contradiction
Sye: how do you know the Bible is true? due to the impossibility of the contrary; if it were untrue, then your question would be unintelligible
Matthew: you appear to hold to a strong form of empiricism, wouldn’t such a worldview make the belief in a statistically impossible chance universe unreasonable? If we were in a different state than we are now, we would be dealing with a similar set of questions.
Matthew: why, if there’s not a God, should we do good to others? Because we value it. Doing good comes from our values that come from within. Sye: in an atheist worldview, doing good is arbitrary.
Matthew: why are you picking apart the Bible, claiming some things are true, but denying the resurrection? There are some true things in the Bible. The Sermon on the Mount contains good morality. The virgin birth is doubtful. Sye: clearly, Matthew is the arbiter of what is true.
Matthew: do you believe in absolute morality? Yes.
Who determines what is moral? The one to whom the action is done.
If your belief in what is moral comes into conflict with someone else’s, then who determines? We have to look at results of the actions.
Sye: how do you define an atheistic worldview (when atheists claim not to have a worldview), and how do you avoid creating a straw-man? Whether you claim to have a worldview, you have positive claims to believe in truth without God.
Labels: Christian worldview