In the “Does God exist?” debate between theist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty (September 17, 2021), the debaters are now talking about where moral precepts come from.
Readers may recall that the debate opened with Egnor explaining why, as former atheist, he became a theist. Then Dillahunty explained why, as a former theist, he became an atheist. Michael Egnor then made his opening argument, offering ten proofs for the existence of God. Matt Dillahunty responded in his own opening argument that the propositions were all unfalsifiable. When, in Section 4, it was Egnor’s turn to rebut Dillahunty, Dillahunty was not easily able to recall Aquinas’s First Way (the first logical argument for the existence of God). Then, turning to the origin of the universe, Egnor challenged Dillahunty on the fact, accepted in science, that our universe began in a singularity (where Einstein’s equations break down). He accused Dillahunty of using science as “a crutch” for his atheism. Then they discussed the Second Oldest Question (after “Why is there something rather than nothing?”) If there is a God, why is there evil?
And now… what is the true origin of our sense of morality?
A partial transcript, notes, and links to all previous portions of the debate follow:
Matt Dillahunty: As long as I live in a society that provides benefits to people who willingly put their lives at risk and sacrifice them, then there is a benefit to me to put my life at risk and to potentially sacrifice it — whether it is a sensation in my head that I will be lauded and applauded by people all around the world. You can take an altruistic action through the pure selfishness of “I want to be celebrated. I would like a statue of me that exists long after I’m gone.” [01:27:30]
Michael Egnor: So do you think that’s why people do it? But some people do that, of course.
Matt Dillahunty: Yes, and so the fact that some people do this means that you were wrong when you said you can’t think of a reason to do this other than a God giving you this sense of morality. There are other reasons to do it. Now, you have to show for any given situation that you view as altruistic, which one is it? Is it real altruism or fake altruism? How can you tell? [01:28:00]
Michael Egnor: I think that some of it is real. Why do people do it if it’s real?
Matt Dillahunty: The only thing that’s required for someone to take an altruistic step is for them to be convinced that it’s the right thing to do. You can be convinced that something’s the right thing to do irrespective of whether it is objectively true. You can get somebody to commit atrocities once you can get them to believe absurdities.
The only thing that’s required for someone to act in a way that is consistent with a particular religious doctrine is for them to be convinced that the doctrine is real. It does not require that the doctrine is in fact real, and so you have to come up with a way to show the difference between someone who’s acting in accordance with a doctrine they believe to be real versus someone who’s acting in accordance with a doctrine that is real. I don’t know how to do that. [01:29:00]
Note: The great 20th-century Christian apologist C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) offered some thoughts on the origin of morality in The Abolition of Man (1943). He called the source of morality the “Tao,” borrowing the Chinese concept of “the Way” (that a human being should live):
“The Tao, which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or…ideologies…all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess.”
While Lewis was definitely a Western monotheist, he insisted that the most basic human values are universal and unchanging. On such values, the Dalai Lama, technically an atheist, largely agrees with the Pope. Both of them might agree with the ancient philosopher Aristotle (384–322) on basic principles. As Lewis put it, “The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.”
Michael Egnor: You’ve agreed with me that there are people who act out of respect for an objective moral law.
Matt Dillahunty: I agree with you there are people who act that way because of their belief and whether they believe it’s objective or not is irrelevant. They can believe it’s subjective and still do it. [01:29:30]
Michael Egnor: So, you don’t believe that it’s objectively wrong, for example, to kill innocent people, or rape babies, or exterminate the Jews?
Matt Dillahunty: Hang on. We just went through a whole bunch of stuff and when you got to a point where it was exposed that you were wrong about what you said, you went back to: I don’t think it’s objectively wrong to rape people and kill babies. That’s not what we were just discussing. We were discussing altruism and whether or not there’s a justification for it.
Michael Egnor: Yeah. But it’s what we’re discussing now, Matt. My question is, is it objectively wrong to do certain things, outside of opinions? [01:30:00]
Matt Dillahunty: I’ve already answered this and I’m sorry that you don’t understand it. I will try one more time.
When you declare what a foundation of morality is, once that’s done, you can compare the consequences of various actions with respect to that foundation, with respect to that goal. That comparison can be objective in the same way that the rules of chess are ultimately arbitrary. They didn’t have to be that way. We made up the game. It is objectively against the rules for you to move your pawn forward four spaces at the beginning of the game. Now, you can say, is it objectively wrong? Well, no, we could have house rules, but we’re talking about these rules.
So before you can make any sort of claim about whether or not something is objectively wrong, you have to have a set of rules that you’re going to use to compare it to. In your case, you have what you think God wrote on your heart. In my case… [01:31:00]
Michael Egnor: What you’re talking about is epistemology, and I’m talking about ontology. You’re saying, “How can we know what the objective rules are?” It’s a very fair question. It’s a core question. It’s a question that ethicists, theologians have asked for thousands of years.
My question has nothing to do with that. My question is do moral laws exist objectively?
Matt Dillahunty: No. I’ve already answered that two or three times. Moral laws do not exist as things unto themselves anywhere. There’s been no demonstration of that. I don’t even know what it would mean to say out here somewhere is an objective moral law because it doesn’t have any… So you could even say, here’s what God… [01:31:30]
Michael Egnor: I do know what it means to say that I don’t believe that innocent people should be killed.
Matt Dillahunty: That’s not what it means.
Michael Egnor: I don’t believe that you should be raped.
Matt Dillahunty: No, that’s not what any of that means.
Michael Egnor: I don’t believe that Jews should be gassed. There’s a whole long list of things that it demonstrates. [01:32:00]
In The Abolition of Man (1943), Lewis also discussed the widespread current view, which Dillahunty espouses, that there really is no such thing as a moral order (a Tao):
“If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves.”
“My point is that those who stand outside all judgements of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse. (…) I am very doubtful myself whether the benevolent impulses, stripped of that preference and encouragement which the Tao teaches us to give them and left to their merely natural strength and frequency as psychological events, will have much influence. I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently.””
Matt Dillahunty: That’s not what any of that means. The fact that you’re convinced there’s an objective moral code doesn’t tell you what it is. The objective moral could be the exact opposite of what you believe.
This is the thing that you’ve done a couple of different times when you were running through your opening talking about, “Oh, we all know this.” And then you had a bunch of questions, and then these questions have been answered. These are the reasons why you’re a believer.
It seems to me that you are very much “I want there to be a moral code. I want there to be an explanation for the origin of universe. I want there to be this and atheism doesn’t offer that so I’ll go with Catholicism. That is also fallacious. It doesn’t mean that the answer there is correct.” [01:32:30]
Michael Egnor: No. I’ve often said that I would be more accepting of atheism as a belief if atheist actually believed it also, but atheists…
Matt Dillahunty: So are you saying I’m not an atheist? I am not?
Michael Egnor: I’m saying you’re not an atheist. [01:33:00]
Next: Michael Egnor explains why he thinks that Matt Dillahunty is not an atheist.
The debate to date:
- Debate: Former atheist neurosurgeon vs. former Christian activist. At Theology Unleashed, each gets a chance to state his case and interrogate the other. In a lively debate at Theology Unleashed, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and broadcaster Matt Dillahunty clash over the existence of God.
- A neurosurgeon’s ten proofs for the existence of God. First, how did a medic, formerly an atheist, who cuts open people’s brains for a living, come to be sure there is irrefutable proof for God? In a lively debate at Theology Unleashed, Michael Egnor and Matt Dillahunty clash over “Does God exist?” Egnor starts off.
- Atheist Dillahunty spots fallacies in Christian Egnor’s views. “My position is that it’s unacceptable to believe something if the available evidence does not support it.” Dillahunty: We can’t conclusively disprove an unfalsifiable proposition. And that is what most “God” definitions, at least as far as I can tell, are.
4: Egnor now tries to find out what Dillahunty actually knows… About philosophical arguments for the existence of God, as he begins a rebuttal. Atheist Dillahunty appears unable to recall the philosophical arguments for God’s existence, which poses a challenge for Egnor in rebutting him.
- Egnor, Dillahunty dispute the basic causes behind the universe. In a peppery exchange, Egnor argues that proofs of God’s existence follow the same logical structure as proofs in science. If the universe begins in a singularity (where Einstein’s equations break down), what lies behind it? Egnor challenges Dillahunty on that.
- Is Matt Dillahunty using science as a crutch for his atheism? That’s neurosurgeon Michael Egnor’s accusation in this third part of the debate, which features a continued discussion of singularities, where conventional “laws of nature” break down.
If the “supernatural” means “outside of conventional nature,” Michael Egnor argues, science routinely accepts it, based on evidence.
- Dillahunty asks 2nd oldest question: If God exists, why evil? In the debate between Christian neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty, the question of raping a baby was bound to arise.
Egnor argues that there is an objective moral law against such acts; Dillahunty argues, no, it is all just human judgment.
You may also wish to read:
Science can and does point to God’s existence. Michael Egnor: Natural science is not at all methodologically naturalist — it routinely points to causes outside of nature. If we are to understand natural effects, we must be open to all kinds of causes, including causes that transcend nature.
The Divine Hiddenness argument against God’s existence = nonsense. God in Himself is immeasurably greater than we are, and He transcends all human knowledge. A God with whom we do not struggle — who is not in some substantial and painful way hidden to us — is not God but is a mere figment of our imagination.
Atheist Claims about logical fallacies often just mean: Shut Up! In the recent debate, Matt Dillahunty accuses theists of “the fallacy of the argument from personal incredulity” because we examine his claims and find them incredible. What atheists fear most is having to explain themselves, and the invocation of fictitious “fallacies” is one of their favorite ways to evade scrutiny.
Theists vs. atheists: Which group has the burden of proof? Because Dillahunty refuses to debate me again, I’ll address his claim that atheists have no burden of proof in the debate over God’s existence in this post. Both atheists and theists make positive statements about the nature of the universe. If atheists shun the ensuing burden of proof, it should count against them.