How (Not) to Have a Debate

debatepic2This past Saturday night I had the pleasure of watching Matt Dillahunty debate Sye Ten Bruggencate after months (or was it years?) of exchanging online challenges to do just that.  It was a thoroughly entertaining evening for reasons which I will get into shortly, but I should first clarify that it’s not precisely accurate to say that a debate ever took place.  To be sure, arguments were made and barbs were exchanged, but in a way the debate itself never actually happened.

See, in a debate, each side is supposed to answer a key question.  In this case, the question was:  Is it reasonable to believe God exists?  Matt came to the event with a pre-prepared script explaining why he did not believe it was reasonable to believe God exists and he presented it exactly as planned.  But his opponent never actually presented a positive argument for why it is reasonable to believe in any deity, much less in one particular iteration out of the thousands available.  Instead of offering an affirmative case for his particular religion, he did the only thing which his peculiar variety of presuppositional apologetics can do:  He argued (quite poorly, I might add) that atheists lack certainty in their knowledge and he concluded without explanation that somehow this means his view wins by default.  It is, in effect, a choice not to present an argument but rather to attempt to dismantle the other guy’s ideas without ever making a positive case for your own.  This oddity follows from the natural limitations of the presuppositional approach itself, which I’ll attempt to explain in the second half of this post.  But first a word about the train wreck that was Sye’s behavior at the event:

There’s Just Somethin’ Wrong with That Fella

On a personal note, I found Bruggencate to be an insufferably rude man, impersonable and stand-offish to almost everyone I heard him address except, notably, me.  Perhaps he afforded me a modicum of respect because I studied both theology and apologetics at the same Reformed seminary where his hero, Greg Bahnsen, used to teach.  But this dubious honor was quickly nullified the moment I watched him attempt to steamroll and disrespect the woman who indefatigably spearheaded and organized this previously-thought-impossible event.  I found every single one of his interchanges with her tasteless and immature, like a petulant toddler correcting his mother for perceived injustices when in fact it is the child who is out of line.  His treatment of her was simply deplorable and speaks volumes about his personal character (as did her superhuman patience, yet firmness, toward him speak of hers).

Even the way he presented his non-case during the non-debate was at once odd, impersonal, superficial, and dishonest.  Rather than stating his positive argument for his own religious claims (remember, he has no positive arguments), he used up the majority of his time playing short clips and snippets of quotes mined from Matt’s previous broadcasts, ripping them entirely out of context (often cutting clips off mid-sentence) and then engaging those clips as if he were really having a conversation with Matt when in reality he was arguing with a digital straw man constructed out of random bits of real sentences made useless by their complete lack of proper context.  It felt a lot like this famous non-conversation which took place just a couple of years ago:


“…and another thing, Mr. President…”

Except Saturday’s bizarre display was even weirder because unlike when Dirty Harry spoke, Sye’s interlocutor was sitting right there next to him, and yet he still chose to talk to an imaginary Matt as if the man he was addressing weren’t sitting right beside him.  I guess I can understand why Sye would prefer to argue with a stylized version of Matt which he carefully constructed out of sound bites divorced from their proper context.  A real person is much harder to engage.  In order to look less like a fool, Sye needed the conversation to follow a carefully scripted track.  But since real life doesn’t afford such predictability, he just concocted his own pre-scripted conversation (or nonversation, if you will) and spent the bulk of his allotted time arguing with a digital straw man version of a guy who was sitting right next to him.  Just bizarre.

One other note I must throw in before attempting to unpack his decision not to present a positive argument of his own:  I’m no doctor, but I do believe that man has a narcissistic personality disorder.  My graduate degree was in Biblical Studies but my undergrad degree was in Psychology and I’m tellin’ ya, there’s somethin’ wrong with that fella.  Besides the despicable way he treated his hosts, he also threatened the audience with eternal damnation so many times that I lost count.  And yes, sadly, I know that even normal people are taught to do that by their parents, Sunday School teachers, and preachers, but this guy seemed to revert back to threats as if he requires intimidation more than any normal person should.  He accused his audience of the most sinister motives and dishonesty without the slightest hint of discomfort that what he was saying was offensive in any way to his listeners.  Or worse still, perhaps he revels in the offense, as if somehow feeding off of the negative attention it brought him.

Ultimately what I saw Saturday night was a man addicted to drawing attention to himself, unaffected by whether or not that attention is negative or positive.  There was an awful lot of self-conscious posing and posturing, and he seemed to me unnaturally fond of speaking in front of a camera.  Our hosts invited him to an informal lunch with some of the key players of the evening but he refused to show unless a camera crew could be there to film the meal.  Let that sink in for just a minute.  I also noted that while another guest, Eric Hovind, was happy to keep chatting with people even after the cameras and microphones powered down, Bruggencate disappeared as soon as the recording stopped.  Such was his style that evening.  And as a side note, if you listen to the broadcast of the Dogma Debate show which immediately followed the Dillahunty (non)debate, you’ll note that Sye wouldn’t even share a stage with the event’s organizer, and you’ll hear David Silverman give his diagnosis for why Bruggencate acted in such poor taste (hint:  Freud would likely have been proud).

Because Sye represents an excellent embodiment of the relationship between a person’s theology and his innate personality flaws, I want to write more about that but will have to save it for another post.  Given that narcissism is his particular disorder, it’s admittedly counterproductive to devote two entire posts to him, particularly since neither I nor the majority of those who have witnessed his style of debate feel that he has earned a place at the grown-up discussion table.  The internet is a funny “place”—an alternate reality, in a way—so that people can be “internet famous” without having really done anything worthy of acclaim.  Even agreeing to debate him assumes a certain amount of risk that you’ll only feed his need to be seen and heard despite his not having anything substantive to contribute to the discipline he pretends to represent (to my knowledge, most other apologists won’t claim him, if they even know who he is).  But I think it’s still necessary to put the guy in his place.  I think Matt did that handily Saturday night, and my appreciation for his ability to think on his feet while enduring obtuse word games has gone up several notches.  But after Matt rebutted each accusation Sye threw his way, a number of people scratched their heads and asked each other what exactly they just witnessed.  If you haven’t ever studied the presuppositionalist apologetic method, you may watch the video of the event (a big thank you to The Thinking Atheist for getting that posted so quickly) and come away as baffled as they were at what you just heard.  So here’s my attempt to unpack and explain what Sye was trying (and failing) to do:

Can Somebody Please Explain to Me What Just Happened Here?

First, a little bit of history is in order.  If I am right, the very notion of a Giant Invisible Man being behind everything in the universe originated from a need to understand why and how things happen.  The operations of the world have long been mysterious to us, and theology, philosophy, and science were each born out of an attempt to make sense of it all.  Over time, philosophy and later science began to come up with better answers (and increasingly convergent ones, particularly for science) than what theology and religion gave us.  The practitioners of the world’s religions have been sore about that ever since.  Initially they defended their beliefs from foreign invasion by appealing to rational argumentation and classical Aristotelian syllogisms, but this method of defending the faith has persuaded fewer and fewer people with each passing century.  By the early 20th century, it had become apparent to some theologians that a new approach was in order.  A Dutch Reformed professor at Westminster Seminary named Cornelius Van Til worked out a new approach which he felt both avoided entanglement in battles against science while also being more consistent with Calvinistic theology.  He called it the presuppositionalist method.  It goes something like this:

Because of “the fall” of Adam and Eve, mankind has been warped by sin such that his motives and his mind have been too greatly marred to appeal to them for our salvation.  Because only those chosen by God can gain the supernatural faith they need in order to be saved (remember Calvinists subscribe to predestination), it does no good to appeal to a man’s reasoning capabilities in order to persuade him to believe.  Faith comes from God, the Calvinists say, so the only rightful and God-honoring way to evangelize is to just preach the Bible.  People will either be “quickened” by the Holy Spirit to believe or else they will not be afforded such grace;  either way, the evangelist’s task is done.  Appealing to the lost person’s reasoning capabilities is idolatry, because doing so sends a signal that mankind is qualified to determine for himself what is “true” and what is not.  This is unacceptable.  Therefore the apologist must not lower himself to engage in presenting a rational case for the existence of God.

What then can the apologist do, other than quote Bible verses?  Van Til suggested that a consistently Reformed apologetic will focus on performing an internal critique of the other guy’s thinking, attempting to demonstrate holes in the listener’s worldview.  If the apologist can show the limitations of the other guy’s belief system, it is assumed that the only viable alternative must be Trinitarian Christian theism.  If you’re listening as close as I think you are, you probably noticed that required a tremendous leap of logic.  I mean, exactly how many competing religions does one have to jump over to arrive at one particular subset of one world religion?  It boggles the mind.  But that’s precisely the level of egocentrism inherent in the presuppositional apologetic method.

TL;DR – “Your worldview has holes in it; therefore mine is the only right one.”

Sye spent the bulk of his time splicing together sound clips divorced from their context in order to paint a caricature of Matt’s worldview as one utterly incapable of demonstrating that we can “know” anything with certainty (that’s crucially important for theists of Bruggencate’s stripe).  His aim was to attempt an internal critique of atheism, presenting it as fundamentally solipsistic.  He does his best to prove his negative case from sound bites of Matt’s show, although it should be pretty obvious to most viewers that there’s something fishy about going at it this way.  Why not just ask the guy what he thinks about this?  He’s sitting right there next to you!  The disingenuousness of presenting his case this way was as obvious as it was comical.

True to form, he never did give positive reasons to believe his God exists (other than the Bible says it).  He only tried to demonstrate what he perceived to be the limitations of not believing in his particular God under the naïve presumption that the only alternative to the view he’s challenging must be his own.  This, as I said, is an inherent weakness in the presuppositional method.  It is primarily a negative approach, and it relies on a tremendous logical leap across thousands of alternatives, known and unknown, in a search for answers to questions which likely aren’t even worded in ways that are fair.

Take the word “knowledge” for example.  Because Sye’s theology dictates that all true knowledge begins with God, anything you say you “know” apart from God is automatically invalid, regardless of how thoroughly you can demonstrate its veracity.  I recall enduring an hour-long discussion one day during seminary in which the professor argued that a non-Christian cannot even properly “know” that 2+2=4.  Not even his students could get on board with that ridiculous claim, but that was a standard presuppositonalist canard, and it demonstrates the absurdity of its position.  When you watch or listen to the debate, you’ll notice that Sye insisted he could know things for certain, but that Matt could not know anything.  That’s why he feels justified in having such a double standard.  In Sye’s view, all knowledge is proprietary, the rightful property of only people on his team.  It’s not so much that Sye genuinely deduced this from Matt’s show.  He came to this performance trying to validate his own tradition’s theory of knowledge, and ripping Matt’s words out of context suited that aim just fine.

Having a Nonversation

What I hope you are seeing is that in fact Sye didn’t come to have a debate in any normal sense of the word.  Argumentation happened, to be sure.  But neither Sye’s theology nor his natural skills as a communicator empowered him to put forth a positive case for the existence of God.  To do so would be anathema, frankly, because from Sye’s theological perspective it would put the listener in the position of arbiter of truth, which of course cannot be done.  “The Truth” can only be asserted, via the infallible Bible of course, and you can either accept it and be saved or else reject it and be condemned to eternal torture.  You’re either with God or you’re against him, Sye argued.  There is no middle ground on which to agree on terms, definitions, philosophical ideas, or even empirically observable facts.  For the presupper, there are no such things as neutral facts.

Can you see how disinterested this would make a man in whether or not his method is actually persuading anyone?  At one point between recordings I asked him if anyone ever “gets saved” through his apologetic method.  He quickly dismissed the question and assured me that wasn’t his problem.  “It’s not my job to persuade,” he asserted.  “That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.”  Indeed, I believe him that he does not take any personal responsibility for the ineffectiveness of his methods.  As with most fundamentalists, “faithfulness” always trumps effectiveness.  That means that they will not (and cannot) change what they are doing or even how they are communicating because they are convinced that the right course has already been revealed to them.  Any deviation from that would constitute a departure from God’s command to “do it this way.”  Put that mentality together with an already pre-existing narcissistic personality disorder and voila!  You’ve got Sye Ten Bruggencate.

The Real Stars of the Evening

So many people invested time, energy, and money into putting on this debate and they all deserve high praise for the work they did.  But in my opinion three people in particular demonstrated superior character and intelligence at the most challenging moments of the evening.

First of all, there was Sarah Morehead.  Sarah serves as the executive director of Recovering from Religion and she put this event together despite a number of formidable obstacles and hiccups along the way.  More than anyone else, she had to endure Sye’s juvenile bullying and instead of kicking him to the curb, she graciously worked with him and his friends to make this meeting happen at last.  It came together quite nicely, in my opinion, and it also served a dual function of providing David Silverman an opportunity to settle on a venue for next year’s big national American Atheists convention.  In case you haven’t heard, it will be at the famous Peabody Hotel in Memphis on Easter weekend.  I’m thrilled that they chose a southern city to host this one, because it will provide southern groups a rallying point for connecting with each other as they promote this big event.

Second of all, Matt Dillahunty totally carried the whole evening with his thorough preparation and lightning quick thinking ability.  For the formal portions of the debate he pre-prepared extensive statements which touched on every issue which he knew Sye would bring up.  And frankly, he nailed it.  By the time he got to his rebuttal portion and read it aloud, it was humorous how on-the-money it was.  It was almost as if Matt had read Sye’s outline ahead of time, and the only thing he didn’t know was that Sye would spend half his time just playing clips of Matt’s show.  In the end, Sye spoke relatively little (because how long does it really take to say, “Just accept the Bible,” amirite?).  When the back-and-forth question and answer portion came around, Sye whipped out his usual arsenal of curt epistemological queries (How do you know that?  Are you certain?  Could you be wrong?), and I thought Matt’s answers were amazingly precise and parsimonious.  He really did a fantastic job of answering those rapid fire questions.  That’s a skill I simply don’t have.  I need time to think.  Matt seems to have already thought through just about all of those challenges and has already worked out a solid bank of answers.

Third, I must give a shout out to David Smalley for his presentation entitled “Loving Your Enemy” before the debate began.  He started the night off on a high note, and I would love to have every religious and non-religious person listen to it and take it to heart.  He spoke of respecting people who think differently from you enough to listen to them and not talk down to them, as if always looking to “win” an argument.  He spoke of learning to connect with people on a deeper level so that a real conversation can take place rather than a war of words which you’re trying to win.  His message was wasted on someone like Bruggencate (who spoke to the non-theists in the room as if we were swine beneath his elect Dutch Reformed feet), but maybe most psychologically healthy people could benefit from being exposed to what he had to say.  He did a great job, and I thought in his later broadcast that he was very patient and respectful with the two-on-one talk he had with both Bruggencate and Hovind.

Overall it was a really entertaining night.  I met lots of folks whom I’m looking forward to getting to know better in the future, and I was thoroughly amused by the quirky neuroses and pompous theological certainties of Bruggencate, who is a real card.  I was deeply impressed with the sharp intellects, good senses of humor, and laudable patience of the key players of this event.  If you’d like to see the video that Seth Andrews made of the debate you can find that here.

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60 Responses to How (Not) to Have a Debate

  1. Jackie says:

    Thank you for that analysis! I’ve been searching the internet every day for insight into the debate as I wait not-so-patiently for Seth to post the video. It seems Sye vomited more of the same ol’ tripe as he always does. The difference now is that Matt Dillahunty took him on, and if anyone can expose Sye for the fool he is, it’s Matt.

  2. Graciebaddog says:

    Spot on analysis of what happened Saturday night. As you mentioned, what stuck me was Sye’s demeanor. I came away with the impression that he didn’t want to be there and hated all of us for being there. It was a huge contrast from the happy clappy Christians I am used to being around. Eric was pleasant, signed autographs and posed for pictures. More than one person commented he seemed like a really nice guy. Eric want us to be saved and go to heaven, Sye paid lip service to that, no more. He acted like he would have been content with us burning in hell forever and he have no problem lighting the gas jets.

  3. Kristie says:

    It’s going to be end of mine day, except before finish I am reading this great paragraph to improve my know-how.

  4. Brian says:

    Sye said it best himself: “You only have to play these philosophical mumbo jumbo games when you are talking to a Christian” – and yes Sye, it IS absurd that we have to do that.

  5. I went to Saturday night’s debate on purpose precisely because Ten Bruggencate was from the Reformed tradition and a presuppositionalist, and I hoped to hear as strong a case made as a theist might be capable of making, one that would put us skeptics on our mettle and force every hearer, of whatever shade of opinion, to think about his or her own assumptions. I had always thought of people of that stripe of Christian as the “Cross Fit” of apologists and knew nothing else about Sye but the brief blurb I read about him. I had never visited his site.

    In that case, it was quite an eye opener. Given the general trend of his thinking, Sye would have done much better to have opened with C.S. Lewis’s quote, something to the effect of “I believe in the Sun, not because I gaze upon it but because by its light, I see everything else.” That is his basic point: that truth is not merely a name we give to a philosophical abstraction but a quality personified in a Conscious Being: that to talk as if that Being were not there is to profess to believe in seeing without light, in hearing without sound, in breathing without air. He should have taken Matt up on his concept of “Found-herent-ism” and replied that, indeed, if one could see no farther than to arbitrarily demarcate a certain area of perception and mark it off in chess squares and impose limited rules (again, the chess illustration was one Matt used), one might be content, though his thinking would be fatally limited. There are other things of a similar nature that might be said on behalf of the theist position, though, of course, none of them is necessary to complete any philosophical system and there is no plausible reason to believe that any of them are true.

    Instead, Sye generally resorted to petulant sniping. One regrets having to resort to personal observations, but Sye himself went out of his way, not only to be the elephant in the room but to give off the aroma of the elephant patty in the room. I kept trying to think who he reminded me of and finally realized it was sort of a cross between Dick Cheney and William Doman, the actor who played the police captain on “The Wire.” He certainly didn’t exemplify the verse of scripture that said “The wisdom that comes from above is peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated.”

    Matt, certainly, acquitted himself splendidly, not only in giving an articulate account of the grounds for unbelief but in gamely keeping up the pretense that a debate was actually in progress. He was also kind enough to answer a couple of questions I put to him one-on-one after the debate, despite needing to decompress from his recent effort.

    I can think of only one point at which I wish Matt had answered differently. A gentleman in the Q&A period identified himself as a scientist and asked Matt if he could name a single advance that we owed to philosophy in the past 2,000 years, and Matt said he could not, though he still found philosophy valuable. I spoke with the questioner afterwards and said that surely we could agree that the rejection of slavery, the rejection of barbaric judicial punishments, and the move toward greater equality for women were advances we owed to philosophy. He was polite but insisted on attributing them to science alone, which I believe is short-sighted. Science enables us to discover how to split the atom; it does not, by itself, tell us whether to use this knowledge to make a bomb or to provide heat and light for a city. I think the tendency on the part of some to want to “collapse” philosophy into science is as dangerous, in its own way, as the tendency of theists to assume that philosophy can’t possibly be complete without the imprimatur of a Deity.

    In any case, I appreciate all the effort that went into organizing the event and can only wish that Matt could have a more worthy opponent. There are quite intelligent Christians who think deeply and reason closely from their premises, and I don’t suppose they can all be deceased, so hopefully, in the name of a fruitful intellectual exchange, they can be located and engaged for events like this one.

    • Jan Willow says:

      I’m not too sure neither whether ending slavery and all that is a result of philosophy. We know that those things have medically, psychologically and/or economically negative effects, which is all very scientific aint it

      • >We know that those things have medically, psychologically and/or economically negative effects, which is all very scientific aint it

        Let’s remember that opposition to slavery arose when those things were not known to be scientific facts. The enslaved race was thought, by many, to be childlike (so that we need not take account of their griefs any more than those of fretful children) and physically capable of more endurance, including to tropical diseases–for instance, when whites fled Memphis during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878, they asked their black servants to stay behind because it was thought that blacks had a natural resistance to malaria.

        As to economic disadvantage, quite the contrary: as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent article in The Atlantic points out, slavery jump-started our national economy, and its products accounted for nearly half of the United States’s exports in 1859, a period that also saw more millionaires in the Mississippi Valley than in any other single part of the country. As one historian says, quoted in Coates’s essay, “If you say ‘industrial revolution,’ you are talking about slavery” (because cotton harvested by slaves powered the textile mills of Manchester and Birmingham, England).

        So opposition to slavery arose when the slave trade was thought to be economically beneficial, when blacks were thought to be perfectly capable of enduring its hardships (except in one notable case, the transportation of slaves via “tight pack,” where they were made to lie on their sides in the holds of ships, instead of on their backs), and so psychologically “simple” as to be virtually beneath any adult concept of grief. Despite this, the abolitionists denounced the entire thing as evil.

        Science deals in facts, not in “oughts” and “ought nots.” Of course individual scientists have such opinions, but they can’t get them from science alone, which merely discovers the facts, not what to do about them. The process of deciding what should or should not be done about a fact is part of philosphy. If you want to read the “scientific” opinion of race from 90, read “The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy,” by Lothrop Stoddard, which calmly and “scientifically” explains how all races except the “Nordics” are inferior. Scientists of that day also supported eugenics.

        I also should have pointed out, in my original post, that another contribution of philosophy was for Kant to make a difference between the noumenal (the so-called hidden, supernatural world, in which even educated men of Kant’s day still believed) and the phenomenal world (the world of discernible facts that we deal with scientifically); Kant said something to the effect that the noumenal world must be forever hidden behind a curtain, so to speak, with no reliable information coming from the other side. Later, Sartre repeated this insight in Being and Nothingness, when he said that the old dualism of “outer appearance” and “inner essence” had been discarded. Neither of these claims need be taken as the last word on the matter, but they were advances in the discussion, and they came from philosophy.

    • Kaushik says:

      I agree on your position. Science is a tool to substantiate various questions/answers that we may have about our existence. We may discover a series of results and formulate a conclusion based on said results. However, I think sometimes people leap prematurely from correlations/results to a “conclusion” and therefore assume that science makes conclusions such as whether to make bombs or power plants. They forget that there’s 2 steps there that involves generating and collecting results (science) and the analysis/interpretation of results within a certain existing framework or point of reference (philosophy). As rational beings, we’re obviously used to doing this ‘on the fly’ all the time in our day to day lives, so my guess is that it is easy to confuse an outcome with a response.

      • Jan Willow says:

        Well I mean, analyzing the results is still science. I guess coming up with the possibility would be more philosophy?

        • >analyzing the results is still science. I guess coming up with the possibility would be more philosophy?

          Science tells us at what temperature water boils. Philosophy is the examination of the question of whether criminals should be boiled alive, as was sometimes done in medieval Japan.

          Let’s remember that philosophy is basically the study of what is (metaphysics), how we can know it (epistemology), and what to do about it (ethics). In other words, it’s a conceptual framework to guide us in thinking about anything at all. Of course, it should be informed by what we do know scientifically–there is no point, for instance, in talking about outer space being filled with “ether” any longer–but it still has its own independent existence and value.

    • PStryder says:

      “I can think of only one point at which I wish Matt had answered differently. A gentleman in the Q&A period identified himself as a scientist and asked Matt if he could name a single advance that we owed to philosophy in the past 2,000 years, and Matt said he could not, though he still found philosophy valuable.”

      I’m disappointed in Matt’s answer there as well. The BEST answer to that is obvious: Philosophy gave us SCIENCE.

      • >I’m disappointed in Matt’s answer there as well.

        Well Matt was still trying to process, as we all were, what had just happened–e.g, the fact that there had been no real debate and that one side had resorted to the tactics of a petulant child–so I imagine a question about the value of philosophy, per se, may have surprised him. He probably handled it about as well as he could, under the circumstances.

        >The BEST answer to that is obvious: Philosophy gave us SCIENCE.

        Not to quibble, but if you’re referring to the pre-Socratics, let’s remember that the questioner’s specific query was “What contributions has philosophy made in the last 2,000 years,” and people like Thales and Democritus came before that period.

        I took the questioner’s basic point to be, what has philosophy accomplished, of any value, since ancient times?

        And since the questioner was a neuroscientist at a renowned institution and seemed to be a very intelligent individual–again, I enjoyed my brief chat with him afterward–the whole thing concerned me as a symptom of what I think is rather widespread: the tendency, on the part of otherwise-well-educated people, to think of philosophy as a rather quaint and irrelevant parlor game that was once all we had but became useless after science really came into its own.

        Lawrence Krauss, obviously one of the first-rate minds of our day in cosmology, seemed to fuel this tendency when he asked in an interview in The Atlantic a couple of years ago, if anyone read philosophers of science nowadays except other philosophers of science. Later, even he seemed to realize how bald that had sounded and back-pedaled a bit, in a subsequent interview.

        And to be fair to Krauss, some of his reaction may have been based on the reaction he and many others had to what seems to be a very silly book by philosopher Thomas Nagel, “Mind and Cosmos,” published in December, 2012, which seemed to say that the Universe is thinking and that it has goals, which delighted Intelligent Design folks and prompted a positive review from Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. I have not read Nagel’s book, but every review of it that I read besides Plantinga’s basically asked “WTF is wrong with this guy?”

        Part of the problem, insofar as it related to Nagel’s book, may be that, instead of concluding that Nagel was being a bad philosopher, some may have concluded that philosophy itself was silly and basically a waste of time.

        Actually, there’s an issue in science that I wish I had thought of earlier, because I’ve read several articles on it and have thought about it a fair amount:

        Science may, and in the near future very likely will, show us how to bring back a Neanderthal man.

        But science, by itself, can’t tell us whether we *should* do that. That issue is a philosophical one.

  6. TrueFreedom says:

    Sye came across like a fundamentalist pastor: pure righteous indignation. He reduced presuppositional apologetics to its crudest form without disguising it in double-speak. Though he held a defensive posture, I found his intentions genuine. He’s a sincerely deluded man.

  7. Matt B says:

    Matt has really helped me sort through my deconversion questions via some of the Atheist Experience clips I’ve watched. My only complaint is that he can be, uh, sometimes lacking in patience maybe. Mostly b/c I just sometimes fear some Christians will immediately write off all his great points simply b/c they think he is a jerk (at times). Having watched this though – holy crap – Sye is the biggest dick I’ve seen Matt debate. Why would anyone think that *during* the debate is a good time to mention that the format is not the way he wanted it? Totally unprofessional. I will concede though that it seems Sye is sincere and not some charlatan.

  8. My read on the definitions of knowledge would be,

    Sye: Knowledge is true belief

    Matt: Knowledge is justified belief

    Matt will never cave to asserting that his beliefs are true, and Sye doesn’t see the benefit (and in fact thinks it’s a sin) to justify his belief (in his god).

  9. Mathew says:

    I was present Saturday. Try as I might, but I could find nothing approaching a debate. Sye seemed to fall back to positions of emotional assault, rather than intellectual discourse. Matt, in my opinion did the same-if only by witholding his true capacities. He read from prewritten monologues; and while I know that this was to prove that Sye’s arguments are so tired that they are essentially rote, it still left us (me) lacking the one thing we came for…fulfillment. Instead it was a series of name-callings, and finger-pointing. I’ve come to expect MUCH more from Matt; however there is something to be said about worthy opponents. Are there any that don’t resort to the same tactics?

  10. I just watched the video of the ‘debate ‘on Youtube. . .and found it to be a bizarre experience. Thanks for unpacking some of the confusion with your analysis. It all makes more sense now why Sye wouldn’t deign to even try to present any positive arguments for his position. He doesn’t think it’s his job to be convincing–that’s God’s choice. And it really was hilarious that in order to make sure he could keep Matt Dillahunty following the script he had all laid out ahead of time, he brought his own Virtual Matt to the debate on his laptop. If you want to stack a -really- big house of cards, you bring your own deck, I guess.

  11. Pingback: Nonversation with StrawMatt, Sye TenB video debate with himself, solipsism sucks | ipka

  12. Tejas Green says:

    I thought there was WAYYY too much “gosh, maybe I’m a brain in a vat.” That’s just BS. Next time, the debate rules should be “ASSUME we are not brains in a vat.” I wish Matt would say “I KNOW I am not a fucking brain in a vat b/c that’s ridiculous.” Just like we KNOW the Christian God is bullshit. Knock off the “well maybe he’s hiding in the third ring of Saturn so we can’t really KNOW there’s God” stuff. If you want to say you don’t KNOW Russell’s teapot isn’t floating around Mars, fine; I KNOW it ain’t to such an utter certitude that it is silly to debate it.

    • Matt can’t do that, because he DOESN’T know we’re not brains in a vat, and CANNOT, and is honest.

    • Duane Davis says:

      I would have taken the cap from my Coke Zero and thrown it at Sye’s head and asked him if I was a brain in a vat could he feel that. So, either cut out that nonsense or here comes the rest of the bottle. It’s such a stupid non-argument.

  13. Southern Skeptic says:

    Good summary. That was definitely one of the most bizarre debates I’ve ever seen. Especially when Sye’s first rebuttal was a picture of a brain in a vat thinking “blah blah blah.” How disrespectful! I don’t know how Matt was able to keep his cool.

  14. What struck me most was the impression from Sye that he did not want to be there. I laughed through his opening remarks and nearly snoozed through his “rebuttal”. I got the feeling that despite all the noise he made about Matt being too recalcitrant to debate him until now, Sye never actually wanted this debate. He was shamed into doing it by Matt calling him out several times for challenging Matt and then rescinding the challenge every time Matt accepted. This time it was do-or-die, so to speak.
    This is an excellent summary, and I’d love to hear your analysis of Sye being the “embodiment of the relationship between a person’s theology and his innate personality flaws” even if does give him more of the attention he seems to so desperately crave. I just wish the debate could have been between Eric Hovind and Matt, as Eric has at least demonstrated the ability to engage in a conversation with another human being.

    Southern Skeptic- It took me a moment to realize what that cartoon was (for some reason I at first thought it was fish in a tank…. I watched the video online) but when it hit me I was a little surprised that Matt didn’t applaud him for stooping so low right there and then. It really was the act of a 5 year old to hold up a cartoon as a rebuttal.

  15. Luca Di Bon says:

    Sye makes his living out of theology there was never the slightest chance that he would budge on any point…… Wait did he actually make a point? How do I KNOW if he made a point if I’m a brain in a vat?

  16. Kaushik says:

    Dear godless (is this the play on words God Bless? or are you just being literal ? :D ),

    Excellent post. Sye is a bully and not interested in anyone else’s worldview unless they espouse his. Apparently, his is the only valid worldview and all others are invalid. This is the definition of an egocentric world view and is actually, ironically, inherently solipsistic (something that he accused Matt of).

    In response to your comments about science vs philosophy (I also thought this was addressed poorly but was also perhaps the most interesting part of the whole video ) :

    “Science enables us to discover how to split the atom; it does not, by itself, tell us whether to use this knowledge to make a bomb or to provide heat and light for a city.”

    I agree on your position. Science is a tool to substantiate various questions/answers that we may have about our existence. We may discover a series of results and formulate a conclusion based on said results. However, I think sometimes people leap prematurely from correlations/results to a “conclusion” and therefore assume that science makes conclusions such as whether to make bombs or power plants. They forget that there’s 2 steps there that involves generating and collecting results (science) and the analysis/interpretation of results within a certain existing framework or point of reference (philosophy). As rational beings, we’re obviously used to doing this ‘on the fly’ all the time in our day to day lives, so my guess is that it is easy to confuse an outcome with a response.

    I did think that part of the frustration was that Matt did tend to live in the philosophical world for the debate, and as such this provides a fertile ground for the irrational to hide in because often definitions and meanings are muddied by lay uses of language, and most of the time is spent clarifying the others position and playing cat & mouse rather than actually addressing the questions.

  17. Andrew says:

    While I don’t agree with Sye’s position, I find your assault on his character in this blog very off-putting and in my opinion, quite immature. We can completely reject a person’s position, but thats no reason to be militant and attack them personally, thats just ad hominem.

    • >We can completely reject a person’s position, but thats no reason to be militant and attack them personally, thats just ad hominem.

      Andrew, I don’t know if you were there Saturday, but if you were, it was surely obvious that Sye went out of his way to make his personality the most obvious feature of the evening. He was at pains to be sarcastic, demeaning, and just generally rude. At first, never having seen him before, I could hardly believe what was happening and assumed he was simply applying a little bit of barbed debate tactic, but nevertheless, in good-natured fun. After a while, it became evident that he was out to needlessly antagonize and denigrate Matt, which was uncalled for.

      As to the debate, really, there *was* no debate. Sye’s position was “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. End of discussion.” Matt’s rebuttals were all written out in advance, but if they hadn’t been, there would have been little or nothing to discuss, and the “debate” would have been over in about 10 minutes.

      I too have had the unpleasant experience of witnessing the needlessly antagonistic atheist who feels the need to insult and abuse his opponent. But I assure you that on Saturday night, it was just the opposite. Whatever the appeal of the Christian position, Sye was not an effective representative but, instead, merely put his own ill temper on display for all to see. It was unfortunate.

    • As a friend recently pointed out, this is a confusion of what the ad hominem fallacy represents. The ad hominem fallacy occurs when you attempt to discredit an argument by attacking a person’s character instead of addressing the argument. I have already explained how Sye’s approach never actually presented a positive argument. As a side note, he is also a rude, inconsiderate bully of a man. I stand by that character judgment. I consider that a separate matter from the weaknesses of his apologetic approach.

      As to your attempt to guilt me about calling a man out for mistreating a friend of mine, nice try :) But it is good and right to highlight such behavior. I see nothing good or mature about letting it pass.

      • Andrew, I read Neil’s post before watching the debate online and I admit, my first response was, “Why did Neil open with such a detailed assault on Sye’s character?”. I, too, worried that his comments about the substance of the debate might be undermined by his comments about Sye. However, when I actually watched the debate online, I totally understood why he wrote what he did. In fact, I am impressed with how Neil carefully broke down Sye’s behavior rather than simply ranting about what an ass Sye was.

        • I could have left out the part about his personality flaws. Ordinarily I would consider that a petty topic and a likely diversionary tactic. His arguments were certainly terrible enough on their own without bringing up his character. I brought up his personal deficits because they were among the things I learned this weekend which I thought should be shared. If his flaws had been seen privately, I might have kept them private. But he went up in front of everyone and accused the debate organizer of being petty, controlling, and eventually called her a liar and refused to have his picture taken with her (and you have NO IDEA how much work she put into bringing these two men together despite significant obstacles, not least of which including Bruggencate’s ornery nature). If you watch the debate and listen to the later debate that aired on the Dogma Debate broadcast, you’ll hear even more of it. More than that, however, I saw how he treated her when the cameras and microphones weren’t even on. And I’m telling you, he earned my disrespect. Not many people do that very quickly. If you ever hear me publicly criticize a man’s character, you can be sure he deserves it.

    • qinella says:

      Nope, it is totally appropriate to call out someone unprofessional, uncivil behavior. It is not “just ad hominem” unless that’s all you do and you never address their points, which isn’t the case here. The description of Sye’s attitude was spot on and needed to be said.

  18. I think Matt missed the easiest debunk of the presuppositionalist question “What do you know.”

    The correct answer is, “I know that I’m NOT the god of the Bible.” Game, set, match.

  19. cjoint says:

    Godless, thanks for the recap. I would have loved to come to the debate to meet you and others in person. I’ve stopped writing my blog, “chasingblackswans” for various reasons but still have interest in talking with others who, like me, were Christians but find ourselves in unbelief now.

    I watched the debate tonight. I do think Sye is rude. But I detect that he is very consistent if nothing else. He seems to be taking the bible at face value. It tells the story of a brutal deity who makes some people for destruction and others for glory (Romans 9). I heard him say in the afterward on the Dogma debate audio that he was he did not believe in an all loving god, a practical reality of reformed theology. It seems he would likely embrace double predestination if asked. For this, I think he is actually the most consistent apologist in the sense that he never appeals to his own reason, intellect, or understanding, but simply presents it as as a fact. Though I agree this doesn’t lend to any persuasion in a debate. It comes across brutal and unreasonable, well, because it is, and is offensive to anyone who thinks reasoning and evidence are good things. But when other apologist appeal to reason they are, in a way, borrowing from our worldview and have a kinder-gentler kind of a god they are defending. This goes again to my own interest in people’s personality corresponding directly to their theology, and vise versa. Sye’s god is brutal and arbitrary, very much like his own personality seems to be.

    Hope to catch up with you sometime and share stories. Thanks for the post.

  20. Letao says:

    I just watched the debate. While I think your analysis is spot on, I think your characterization of Sye Ten Bruggencate as a narcissist is woefully lacking. Sye Ten Bruggencate is a willfully ignorant buffoon steeped in the contemptuously righteous privilege of a narcissistic bully throwing around words he doesn’t understand and has no business using. A thoroughly disgusting man. This toxic buffoon should never be spoken of again. He deserves no recognition among the atheist community, except as a charlatan to be avoided by all self respecting persons.

  21. pboyfloyd says:

    good post.

  22. a kind of exhausting weird freak show. Rather long at nearly 2 hours including the debate Q & A. If you are interested in the mindset of the literalist, it could be for you.

    I would have loved to come up with a cracker of a question myself, perhaps along the lines how did you logic-wise function before you got religion, why didn’t you excercise more critical thought prior to your theology slamming the exit shut on you? By making Sye account for his thought prior to his conversion, one would show he slid from rationality into semi-madness.

  23. Dan Courtney says:

    Good analysis. I debated Sye two years ago, and I invited him to dinner afterward with my wife and several members of the sponsoring church. As soon as we sat down he placed a recording device on the table between us. After having embarrassed him in the debate (his words, not mine) I saw this as a pathetic attempt to capture sound bites of me that he could exploit later. I’m not so concerned about Sye’s social ineptness, but rather it points to an implicit acknowledgment on Sye’s part that his position is so transparently flawed that it cannot compete in honest, adult conversation.

  24. Eric says:

    This debate was pathetic. Sye said that Matt couldn’t hang up on him in this venue. I REALLY wish that Matt could have done that; this painful-to-watch debate would have been shorter. He was rude to you as well though to a lesser extent, I think.

    I knew this debate would be a slaughter but this was a slaughter on top of Sye making a jackass out of himself. I’m not an atheist BTW, I’m a Christian.

  25. improbulos says:

    Great analysis and I agree with you about Sye (and I also was a psychology major).
    When I questioned him on the very small number of people, by percentage, going to heaven based on his theology, he was quite unsympathetic. He said that we should be thankful God saved one even though he is sending 99 to hell.

    Wow! Damnation by probability I call it. But Sye was unfazed.

    Matt was great and even better than I expected. One reason is that Sye was not able to open up with his “how do you know that” debating style and constant trapping of his opponent. That is another reason Sys was so unhappy.

    I would also argue that people like Fred Phelps, Harold Camping, Ken Hamm, and Sye actually turn fence-sitters away from organized religion. Their extreme views are not held by the majority of Christians and most will ultimately agree, that in reality, they are Pick and Choose Christians, or Secular Humanists.

    I M Probulos

    • Someone should ask Sye (although I can probably guess the answer) that if less than 1% of people will be saved from eternal hell fire, isn’t god’s entire creation a failure? A miserable failure that can hardly be a lot of fun for those few kickin’ it in heaven.

      I mean any test that you score 1 out of 100 is an F. So if Jesus’ whole mission has resulted in only 1% being saved he should be fired for incompetence.

      • That would make sense under normal circumstances. But Reformed theology, which Sye inhabits, dictates that God can do as he pleases and is above reproach. So if he creates 100 billion people and chooses to save a couple of dozen, that’s his prerogative. It’s really messed up thinking, I agree. But that mentality actually gels with the Bible pretty well, depending of course on which verses you look at :)

        • I have seen this brimstone-type God from Christians also. Forgive my crudeness but having Christians admit and agree and proselytize about how much of a d-ck God is would go a long way towards increasing the non-affiliated ranks more than any one Atheist group ever could.

          • Well, you’re in luck, then! Because Calvinism is trending once again among the largest Protestant denomination these days. Although its day may already be passing, because a number of their most visible leaders are embroiled in a handful of controversies about authoritarianism and improper handling of sexual abuse. They’ve also picked the losing side of the culture war surrounding marriage equality, and it appears they’re determined to go down with that ship.

  26. Royaldiadem says:

    Atheism presupposes Theism

    • LOL.

      I’m assuming you mean the word “theism” is in the label. But that’s not our label, that’s what other people call us. I would call myself a humanist.

    • Letao says:

      Much like non-stamp collecting presupposes stamp collecting.

    • >Atheism presupposes Theism

      Royal, I’m sure you think you’re making a very telling point when you say that, but really, you’re not.

      That may be more true in your world. Grace does, indeed, presuppose sin, heresy presupposes orthodoxy, and Protestantism presupposes Catholicism. But the application is not quite as general as you might think.

      I drink my coffee black, without cream or sugar, whereas I once used both. To say I drink my coffee without cream or sugar does, indeed, presuppose their existence, but it does not make my current coffee consumption somehow incomplete or illegitimate without those two ingredients.

      Getting a little closer to what I think you mean to say, if someone tells me he was abducted by aliens, and I decline to believe his story, my “non-alien-kidnapping-ism” does not “presuppose” aliens. It simply means I think there aren’t any–or at least, that I am not prepared to adopt belief in them on his evidence.

      If you’re not careful, then you turn the denial of anything into a backhanded acknowledgement of its legitimacy, which would be nonsense. I don’t suppose you believe the angel Gabriel dictated the Qu’ran to Muhammad word for word, but your unbelief does not “presuppose” the “truth” of Islam. Think about it.

  27. rlwemm says:

    Thanks for the analysis. Apart from the inevitable claims from Sye-supporters that Sye “won” a debate they appear not to have either heard or understood, the picture presented to those of us with working brains was an unchallenged win for Dillahunty who, as you point out, was the only one making a case or challenging the reasoning of the opposition’s case.

    If the Biblical claim were true that Christian’s can be known by their “fruit” then Bruggencate’s anti-social behavior identifies him as a non-Christian. I have no doubt that he could find a way to interpret it in such a way that it appeared to support rather than condemn his behavior but he can do no more than claim that his unique interpretation is the only correct divinely inspired one. That, of course, is the root of the failure of his whole position: it rests on his infallible ability to know that what he believes is divinely inspired in the first place.

    As for knowledge, Sye’s claim to an infinite source of it shows no useful correlation with his performance on tests of general and scientific knowledge that is easily confirmed by multiple observations from many sources, measures, observers and perceptual faculties. In fact, his version of god does not seem to have educated him any better than his limited schooling has.

  28. David says:

    As I first started to red this post, I almost immediately assumed you were unfairly attacking and ridiculing Mr. Bruggencate, exaggerating his bluster and lack of argument to make your own point. I’ve seen atheists do it before. Then I watched the video of the “debate.” When his opening statement began with the assertion that “it is reasonable to believe that God exists because it is true,” I knew you weren’t exaggerating. That right there proved this guy is incapable of logical thought or rationality. Put him in the same box with ken Ham.

    Religionists cannot escape this basic truth: to believe in God, you must accept something for which there is not only no proof, but no evidence. How can that be reasonable?

  29. The_Physeter says:

    I loved watching this debate. I wanted to be surprised that someone could make such a nonsense argument and still think he was right, but I’m afraid I just wasn’t surprised anymore.

    What did surprise me a bit was why Sye agreed to do the debate at all. At the end (around 1hour 50) there he started talking about how “God will not be mocked,” and said he’d debate any other religion at all, but not an atheist. At that point in the debate, he started accusing anyone who disbelieves in God of blasphemy, and said something about how blasphemy is hugely offensive and should not be tolerated. But…but… he knew what this debate was about in the first place! So why the hell did he agree to come and do it?

    I suppose he was just angry that he’d lost so badly and was lashing out in the most ‘righteous’ way he could think.

    Also, Sye doesn’t think he needs to provide any evidence, because the existance of God is obvious to his listeners. He said that many times in the debate. The existence of his particular, trinitarian Christian god is obvious and known to all human beings, but some choose to pretend it’s not in order to sin.

    But really, all I could think at the end was, “Look here, this isn’t an argument, it’s just a contradiction. An argument is a collective series of statements to establish a definite proposition. It isn’t just an automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.”

    • This made total sense out of a situation I’m having currently–a friendly spar with a Christian elsewhere who I realize now must be another of these Calvinist presuppositionalist types; I’m not super-familiar with the theology, but he acts so much like Sye and says so many of the exact same things that I can’t help but wonder if it’s actually him. He keeps threatening me with Hell–I mean, like every single post he writes–and when I ask him how he knows, all he can do is bluster why, because it is true! and maybe throw in yet more Bible verses condemning me and propping himself up (while knowing full well that I don’t consider the Bible inerrant or authoritative). He clearly doesn’t think he needs to prove the validity of any single thing he’s threatening me with and he is quite obviously completely flabbergasted that I’m not impressed. I was thinking he was a troll till I saw this excellent post regarding the debate; now I know where he’s getting this ridiculous nonsense from!

      I have to admit I kinda respect Christians who just give up on pretending love is involved anywhere and just go straight for the jugular. I’d vastly prefer a loving worldview, but if the ship is sinking you might as well gun the engines and get out the parasails.

  30. If anyone still hasn’t seen the debate in full, you can save yourself 2 hours and a lot of facepalms with this 10 minute gist of it:

  31. Pingback: Why I Write | godless in dixie

  32. Tristan Vick says:

    I agree, Sye was insufferable, rude, and completely condescending to the audience.

    @godlessindixie, I thought your question worked great at revealing that Sye doesn’t care anything about understanding God or other perspectives, because, well, apparently he already knows all there is to know.

    What a joke, that guy.

    I blogged my own take on the event (which I viewed online):

  33. Pingback: We don’t have to listen to Sye ten Bruggencate anymore | Act of Reparation

  34. Pingback: The Christian’s Guide to Ex-Christians: Engaging Me. | Roll to Disbelieve

  35. Justin says:

    I’d love to have a transcript of Matt’s closing statements if anyone has it!

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