laws of thought

Matt Dillahunty's Illogical Worldview

By Justin Wishart

I recently watched a debate between Sye Ten Bruggencate and Matt Dillahunty.[1] I have been mildly interested in Dillahunty's show The Atheist Experience[2] over the years. The question under debate was whether it was reasonable to believe God exists. I was pleasantly surprised that Dillahunty presented what I think is his epistemological position. Ten Bruggencate suggested that Dillahunty's worldview leads to absurdity. Is this true?

The most striking feature of Dillahunty's epistemology is that he gives a two-level epistemological view. The first level, which I will call the metaphysical level, says that we cannot know reality. "As such, many philosophers have simply acknowledged they cannot be absolutely certain about anything, including the claim that they cannot be absolutely certain."[3] The second level, which I call the subjective level, is that one must accept certain presuppositions as true, with no argument given for them as all arguments are derived from them.

My worldview begins with the recognition of the logical absolutes,[4] that they are true and the foundation of reliable thoughts, as such that we can derive sensible conclusions from them. While I don't support absolute certainty in the ultimate sense . . . the logical absolutes represent maximal certainty, which may or may not be absolute, and anything directly deduced from those absolutes, like math and set theory, are also maximally certain, while things indirectly derived from those are reasonably certainties.[5]

So, how does Dillahunty combine the metaphysical level with the subjective level in his overall epistemological scheme?

In the past I have said that we can be absolutely certain that we exist, that the logical absolutes are true, and about things like exoteric claims and labels, but my expression of absolute certainty on those topics are done within the context of an epistemological view known as foundherentism (which is a combination of foundationalism and coherentalism). In a nutshell, in the rules of chess it is absolutely wrong to move your rook diagonally. And while I reject that we can be absolutely certain from an externalist point of view, we can still be absolutely certain within the meshed framework, and it makes no sense to appeal to some absolute truth which it isn't wrong to move your rook diagonally . . . I will simply refer to this as maximal certainty, and that maximal certainty may or may not map to ultimate certainty.[6]

To put it succinctly, while we can deduce certainty at the subjective level, we cannot obtain certainty at the metaphysical level. An important consequence of this scheme is that all claims to knowledge, including what he calls maximal certainty, are predicated on the understanding that nothing is knowable at the metaphysical level. It follows that Dillahunty's scheme is fundamentally pragmatic, and he recognizes this: "I will concede, as do most philosophers, that there appears to be no . . . absolute solution. But I am stuck dealing with the reality I experience until someone offers me a way out."[7] It's not that Dillahunty's subjective level is capable of deriving true beliefs, but that it has worked best for him. Yet, a Christian could offer the same explanation, but they would have a different subjective level foundational set than Dillahunty. This seems necessarily true as all our experiences are different. How does Dillahunty avoid the charge of situational arbitrarity?[8] When viewing this at the metaphysical level, there is no reasonable belief for Dillahunty at all, much less a reasonable belief in God. This would, of course, include his subjective-level epistemology scheme. This refutes anything he may say at the subjective level and his words are reduced to mindless babbling.

Dillahunty thinks that a valid accounting of knowledge isn't even important. "Whether or not my beliefs count as knowledge,[9] under my definition or Sye's or someone else's, is irrelevant to the topic of this debate and it's largely irrelevant in any context that isn't expressly an academic philosophical discussion about knowledge."[10] Does he really think that one's belief corresponding to reality has no bearing on the reasonableness of the belief in God? Well, since he brought up Ten Bruggencate, let's see what Ten Bruggencate said about this relationship. "Why is it reasonable to believe that God exists? Quite simply, because it is true that he exists."[11] The truth of the issue is exactly the standard that Ten Bruggencate uses to define reasonableness. This refutes Dillahunty's statement, and one's belief being real has much bearing in a conversation with Ten Bruggencate. It also seems that Dillahunty himself recognizes the importance of beliefs corresponding to reality. "It's in our best interest to believe in as many true things, and as few false things, as is possible. Making our internal map of reality as accurate as possible."[12] It appears that for Dillahunty, the correspondence of our beliefs to reality is important, unless he contends that this statement isn't reasonable. Why is it reasonable to believe in as many true things as possible if the truth of the belief has no bearing on the belief's reasonableness? This seems contradictory.

However, Dillahunty is insistent that we look at his epistemological scheme from the subjective level, so we will. He seems unaware that he presents a trilemma:

  1. Since he has made the term "reasonable" a result of one's subjective level of epistemology, of course the existence of God becomes reasonable to the Christian. It is also the case that it is true that it is unreasonable to believe in God's existence for the Atheist. This makes it true that it is both reasonable and unreasonable to believe in the existence of God. Since there is no way, according to Dillahunty, to know if one's view corresponds to reality, we seem stuck with this contradiction, "and that way madness lies."[13]
  2. Or, if he insists that the unreasonableness of God's existence is objectively more reasonable still, his position leads to a case of special pleading. He believes his subjective level is superior to the Christian's subjective level, but cannot provide valid and sound argument that is supported by evidence.[14] Dillahunty may appeal to philosophical consensus as much as he likes, but he knows this does nothing to prove the reality of his view. The rules soften when applied to his position, while they are in full force when applied to Ten Bruggencate.
  3. If he makes it about the reasonableness of a belief, with no reference to its correspondence to reality, then he must provide valid, sound criteria. Since the only thing left to him is the subjective level, any criteria will be circular. What is reasonable is dictated by the subjective level, and the subjective level seems derived from its reasonableness.

I didn't focus on more minor issues in Dillahunty's presentation, as they were legion. I will only mention one as an example. "'You can't know anything unless you know everything or know someone who knows everything.' Well, I would like to see the proof of that rather than just an assertion or a demand that we prove them wrong or a fallacious shifting of the burden of proof."[15] He says one cannot use a "prove me wrong" defense as this is a "fallacious shifting of the burden of proof." Then why earlier did he provide this argument in support of his subjective view?

I don't believe that the question "Why are the logical absolutes true?" expresses a sensible concept. For me it's like asking, "Why is one, one?" Because it is and it doesn't appear it could be any other way and if it could be any other way, give any evidence to the contrary, you need to demonstrate it, and that's a very heavy burden of proof, but if you can do it, then I will believe it.[16]

With such faulty reasoning and shoddy argumentation it's a wonder that anyone takes his views seriously. I have lost nearly all interest in Matt Dillahunty as a serious thinker after watching this debate. He is no more profound than the people I debate on Facebook, although he uses bigger words. Ten Bruggencate said earlier on in the debate he wanted to argue that unbelief in God leads to absurdity. While Dillahunty's performance doesn't prove that conclusion, it did prove that Dillahunty's epistemology, at least, leads to absurdity.


[1] "The Refining Reason Debate: Matt Dillahunty VS Sye Ten Bruggencate," YouTube, June 3, 2014, accessed February 21, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OL8LREmbDi0. All time indexes given in this article are taken from this video.

[2] The Atheist Experience, accessed February 21, 2015, http://www.atheist-experience.com.

[3] Dillahunty vs. Ten Bruggencate, 27:33.

[4] Dillahunty equates "logical absolutes" with the "Laws of Logic."

[5] Dillahunty vs. Ten Bruggencate, 30:42.

[6] Ibid., 31:50.

[7] Ibid., 27:06.

[8] This is the idea that our situation is such as it is. If our subjective level epistemology is based on this situational arbitrariness, then it follows that Dillahunty promotes an arbitrary epistemology.

[9] Defined as justified true belief.

[10] Dillahunty vs. Ten Bruggencate, 32:54.

[11] Ibid., 1:57.

[12] Ibid., 13:30.

[13] Ibid., 14:11.

[14] Ibid., 12:00. This is Dillahunty's definition of a reasonable belief, which makes his two-tier epistemology unreasonable by his own standards.

[15] Ibid., 33:15.

[16] Ibid., 30:14.