I recently watched the debate between Matt Dillahunty and Eric Lounsbery. I remember Eric’s call to The Atheist Experience and I was interested in hearing him display the debating skills which he touted so highly. Others have written about their impressions of the debate with comments about content as well as delivery. Whilst I’m sure I’ll address Eric’s delivery at a later point, I’m just interested in examining Eric’s list of premises here. I was going to do this as a video series, but I find it easier to focus on the content of the premises if I can just read them without having to listen to Eric talk. The fact that Eric is an insufferably arrogant dick is irrelevant to the truth of his arguments. In this series, I’ll be quoting Eric from his debate with Matt. Some of the quotes are lengthy, but this is necessary since I don’t want to misrepresent Eric’s arguments. Here we go.
“Existence does not come from nonexistence. The proof of this is the truth of this premise is evident. The idea of attributing an effect to a nonexisting cause is absurd. Example: if a fire broke out in a room that I happened to be in, and someone present asked what caused it, and I replied, “The fumes from the gasoline can must have ignited by the candle’s flame,” the problem is there’s neither a candle nor a can of gasoline existing in this room. Therefore, it is impossible for the existence of the fire in the room to have come from the non-existing gasoline and candle. The second piece of evidence that proves this is the principle of uniformity, which states that similar effects have similar causes. Every single example we have of something beginning to exist shows that it came from something already existing.”
Reword and Rehash
Eric mentioned this premise during his call to The Atheist Experience, except he has since reworded it. He changed it from “something cannot come from nothing” to “existence does not come from nonexistence”. He was still beginning with the same cosmological argument here, so it’s pretty much a rehash. The most significant change was in the verbs. Eric shifted from cannot come to does not come, and I don’t blame him there. He knew he couldn’t demonstrate the impossibility required by asserting that it cannot happen, so he meant to strongly imply it by tying it to what he called “the principle of uniformity”. It’s a subtle shift, but it’s potentially significant since part of debate is the inevitable wrangling over wording.
Eric asserted that his first premise is self-evident and he used an analogy to illustrate this point. All analogies eventually break down, so I won’t beat up on it too much. But I will beat up on it a little bit. The setup is pretty comical. If I’m in a room with someone and a fire breaks out, they may turn to me and ask what caused it. However, my reply is going to be, “We need to get our asses out of this room!” I’m happy to discuss the cause of a fire in a burning room, but not while I’m sitting IN the damn thing. Also, there’s a problem with the “non-existing” gasoline can and candle. Perhaps there was an actual gas can and candle in the room which got consumed by the fire as it broke out. They may not be existing in the room now, but they were at one point. So they would be potential causes of the fire. Empirical investigation would be needed to confirm it, so asserting them as a cause is a reasonable guess but not a justified conclusion. However, Eric seems to be saying that neither the candle nor the gasoline can ever have existed in the room, which would obviously make it impossible for them to cause the fire. That would mean that one of the people in the room had observed a natural phenomenon and posited a cause without providing any evidence for the existence of that cause, which is exactly what cosmological arguments attempt to do. If you’re going to sit on a branch, you should avoid sawing it off.
A glaring problem with Eric’s first premise is the concept of nonexistence, which he uses in place of nothing. The change in wording does nothing to advance the premise. We’re still left asking what is meant by nonexistence in the same way we would ask what is meant by nothing. Clarification is needed but is terribly difficult to come by. Talking about the concept of nothing presents all sorts of linguistic problems. We must talk about nothing as if it is something. In order to describe what nothing is (or is not), we must ascribe properties to a concept which is devoid of any properties by definition. Being devoid of all properties may even be considered a property itself. I’ll lay those aside for the purposes of this discussion. Besides, those difficulties are more fun to talk about when you’re drunk.
It’s one thing to discuss concepts, but it’s another thing entirely to observe and experience them empirically. We can build all sorts of conceptual frameworks and belief systems by virtue of language and definitions alone, but they may not actually map to the world around us. This is part of the problem with premises which depend on reifying abstractions like nothing – there aren’t necessarily any real-world instances of these abstractions for us to test or experience. We can build hypothetical models, but we have no way to verify them unless we have an instance in reality. The best we can say is, “if there were a real-world instance of nothing, then we would expect it to be unable to produce anything”. That’s hardly what I would call evidence. The premise remains unsubstantiated.
In his employment of a version of the oft-eviscerated Kalam cosmological argument, Eric offered “the principle of uniformity” as a “second proof” of the truth of his first premise. The wording confused me. I’m aware of the principle of the uniformity of nature which holds that the laws of the universe operate the same way now as have in the past and as they will in the future. Eric seemed to attempt to apply this to causality, but it didn’t quite fly. His support for it was the statement that all of our observations of things beginning to exist show that they came from things which already existed. This is essentially a restatement of his first premise, and it was also supposed to function as support for a second proof which supports his first premise. It is circular, but it’s also deceptive. Eric appears to be appealing to an academically-formalized causal principle when he is actually just paraphrasing David Hume:
If reason (I mean abstract reason, derived from inquiries a priori) be not alike mute with regard to all questions concerning cause and effect, this sentence at least it will venture to pronounce, That a mental world, or universe of ideas, requires a cause as much, as does a material world, or universe of objects; and, if similar in its arrangement, must require a similar cause.1
It sounds like an appeal to authority, a formal principle which substantiates an intuitive “evident” truth. This leads me to question why Eric even mentioned this principle if the proof of his first premise is that it is obvious and intuitive.
So far, I haven’t really heard anything I can hang my hat on. Asserting that something is true because it’s obvious is weak sauce, and Eric didn’t really offer any support or evidence for his first premise other than that bald assertion. There’s a lot that Eric didn’t define or clarify, and the support he attempted fell far short of compelling. Even if I were to grant his first premise, it’s essentially an intellectual exercise. If he’s going to map any of this to reality, he’s got a lot of heavy lifting to do. We’ll see how his impeccable reasoning and debate skills unfold.