Comments on the Wallis Debate Recap: Agnosticism (Updated! Includes response from Wallis)

Introduction

Ben Wallis has written a post wherein he briefly points out what he believes are serious problems with “two key arguments” I offered during the course of our debate on the existence of God. There are a number of arguments I used for TAG in the debate and it is not my opinion that Mr. Wallis addressed them all either during the debate or in his brief review. That Mr. Wallis has written some of his thoughts concerning the debate and apparently wants to continue some discussion in the future (both of which are perfectly fine with me) allows me the opportunity to make my own comments concerning the debate (something I generally do not do). Here I will only briefly touch upon what Wallis has most recently written though I may perhaps go through and review the debate more thoroughly in the future if time allows.

A Short History of Atheists…er…Agnostics?

The first gentleman I ever publicly debated claimed to have changed his position from atheism to agnosticism after I presented him with the Kalam Cosmological Argument prior to our debate. Another gentleman I also publicly debated on the subject of the existence of God told me no more than a week before our debate that he was an agnostic and then during the course of the debate proudly announced to the audience that he was an atheist. Yet another individual I debated in writing was an atheist going into the debate but switched to deism in the midst of the debate due to outside factors. The alleged reasons given for these changes or their overall significance are not really all that important here; my point is that it does not really catch me off guard anymore when my debate opponents change their positions just prior to going into a debate with me. So it is with Ben Wallis. Those who came into contact with Mr. Wallis before he began to prepare for the debate with me might know that up until that point he was claiming to be an atheist. Finding the position untenable he decided to defend agnosticism in our debate instead. Thus in his review Mr. Wallis writes that, “During the debate, Mr. Bolt argued for the existence of God, whereas I expressed agnosticism on the subject, and explained why I found his presentation unconvincing.”

Mr. Wallis is an Agnostic?

It is worth noting that Mr. Wallis in his own words, “expressed agnosticism on the subject” of the existence of God. Two of the arguments I offered in my opening statement pertained to agnosticism and concluded that it is a false position. By the looks of some of the concluding remarks of his review Mr. Wallis did not find these arguments convincing explaining that, “Mr. Bolt’s argument against agnosticism is still less satisfactory…” He even writes, “So, while I thank him for forcing me to think carefully about my position, I must remain agnostic to the existence of the Christian God.” It should be clear then that Mr. Wallis is an agnostic. He changed his position to agnosticism just prior to the debate, went in claiming agnosticism, and left apparently holding the same as he was unmoved by my two arguments against agnosticism. Now in his debate review he has expressed again that his position is that of agnosticism. Unfortunately Mr. Wallis contradicts himself concerning this fundamental tenet in his review just as he did during the course of the debate.

Mr. Wallis is an Atheist?

Wallis writes, “I can rule out the existence of any God which is said to make all people believe in him.” Do you find this strange? I certainly do! Ruling out the existence of any God or gods is not agnosticism; it is hard atheism. However, Mr. Wallis has already claimed multiple times that his position is that of agnosticism. Now I can hear the groans from atheists and agnostics already. I’m not really being fair here am I? Certainly one might be agnostic with respect to a great number of gods and yet take such a hard atheistic stance against some particular conception of god or gods. My reply is that perhaps one may, but no argument or explanation has been provided for this and it does not appear to be what Mr. Wallis has attempted to do at all.

Recall again that Mr. Wallis has expressed his agnosticism multiple times and is well aware of what kind of God I believe in. Indeed, I made it clear in my opening statement that I would be arguing for the existence of the Triune God of Christian Scripture. [03:45] Yet while repeatedly affirming that he is an agnostic Mr. Wallis makes statements (and even quotes the following one in his post) like, “yes, I’m denying that his particular idea of God exists…[67:10].” Now please tell me how I am to make sense of this? If Mr. Wallis denies that God exists, then how can he also claim to be an agnostic? Again people may jump to his defense here and say that he can claim to be an agnostic with respect to other theistic conceptions, but even if this is the case (and again, there has been absolutely no explanation that this is the case) what does it have to do with our debate? Would it make sense for me to describe myself as a hard atheist going into the debate with Mr. Wallis? Should I have made a big deal out of the fact that I do not believe that any other gods exist?

Dilemma

If Mr. Wallis is an agnostic with respect to the Christian God and an atheist with respect to the Christian God as his statements above indicate that he is then his position is contradictory. If Mr. Wallis is agnostic with respect to other gods and an atheist with respect to the Christian God then his agnosticism is wholly irrelevant to the debate and he needs to be defending his hard atheism. However, Wallis gave up hard atheism as untenable prior to the debate and did not make any effort to satisfy his own burden of proof for hard atheism during the course of the debate apart from what follows.  

Defense of Atheism

Wallis writes, “I pointed out that, since I don’t believe in God, any hypothesis which holds that I do believe in God must be false in that respect. So, I can rule out the existence of any God which is said to make all people believe in him, since I am living proof that such a God does not exist.” He quotes from the debate, “[My unbelief] does contradict his view of God—absolutely, yes. So, if you want to be strict about it, yes, I’m denying that his particular idea of God exists, at least insofar as it includes the idea that I really believe in God, because I know that I don’t! [67:10]” Presumably Mr. Wallis would attempt to support his atheism with respect to the Christian God by appealing to his own alleged unbelief. Setting aside that Mr. Wallis elsewhere repeatedly claims that he is still an agnostic this attempt at an argument for atheism can be readily dealt with. Why is Mr. Wallis, “living proof that such a God does not exist”? It is because of his claim, “I know that I don’t [believe in God]! [67:10]” Well, if Mr. Wallis expects us to accept this as a sound argument for atheism then I have the perfect argument to rebut him with and prove the existence of God:

I serve a risen Savior, He’s in the world today;
I know that He is living whatever men may say;
I see His hand of mercy, I hear His voice of cheer,
And just the time I need Him, He’s always near.
He lives, He lives,
Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me
Along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives,
Salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives?
He lives within my heart.

(http://my.homewithgod.com/heavenlymidis2/lives.html)

My point here is not to mock Mr. Wallis. It is rather to highlight the fact that he has offered us no more than an argument from experience. William Lane Craig may be able to get away with this, but Mr. Wallis is not William Lane Craig and neither am I. While Mr. Wallis needs to offer “proof that such a God does not exist” he has not actually done so. Instead we have been given a claim about an alleged subjective personal experience.

Defense of Agnosticism

To keep matters confusing I will move on to the arguments that Mr. Wallis presents in an attempt to defend his agnosticism. Recall that he writes, “Mr. Bolt’s argument against agnosticism is still less satisfactory…while I thank him for forcing me to think carefully about my position, I must remain agnostic to the existence of the Christian God.” I must pause to question – if my argument against agnosticism is not satisfactory – why did Mr. Wallis attempt to defend his atheism as described above? If agnosticism held up against the arguments presented against it then why did Mr. Wallis concede to me in his aforementioned acceptance of atheism and respective attempted defense of that position? Mr. Wallis appears to me to be much more arbitrary with respect to the Christian God than he is atheistic or agnostic. With all due respect to Mr. Wallis I do not believe that he has thought carefully enough about his position. From the comments that have been received regarding the debate I do not believe that others have been thinking very carefully about Mr. Wallis’s position either. It is terribly confused at best and contradictory at worst. While stating that he denies the existence of God, Mr. Wallis still claims to be an agnostic and claims that my arguments against agnosticism are less than satisfactory because, “he ignores the plethora of possible creator-deities (including different conceptions of Yahweh) outside his own personal view.” If Mr. Wallis is suggesting that I ignore other concepts of creator-deities and other concepts of Yahweh in general then he is just mistaken. If he is suggesting instead that my argument as stated ignores such concepts then I for the most part agree, but I do not see how this entails that anything is wrong with my argument. My argument pertains to one concept of God – the concept of God I clearly stated at the beginning of the debate and that Mr. Wallis has known I believe in – and it pertains to the agnosticism which Mr. Wallis claims to hold. Thus if Mr. Wallis is unsatisfied with my argument because it does not discuss other subjects that are in no way pertinent to the thrust of the argument or the topic of the debate or either individual involved in said debate then it is owing more to something wrong with the way Mr. Wallis is evaluating the argument than it is owing to the argument itself.

Wallis objects again, “Of course, here Mr. Bolt is assuming that the only ‘God’ on the table is his own Reformed conception of Yahweh, the God of the sixty-six-book Protestant Bible.” Of course it is quite silly to make such a claim. I have studied religion for years and am well aware that there are other theistic concepts out there. However, even if I were ignorant of these other concepts I have no idea what that would have to do with the argument in question. The last time I checked Mr. Wallis was an agnostic…or an atheist…or whatever it is that he is; he does not claim to be a theist. With me it is just the opposite. I believe in God and I believe in a particular kind of God. Adherents to other theistic religions believe in particular kinds of gods too. Mr. Wallis’s concerns here already assume this fact. Yet I am totally unsure of what any of this has to do with the argument and why Mr. Wallis would cite it as a reason for his rejecting the argument. I do not care at this point to speculate how people who believe in other kinds of gods would go about defending their positions. I came to the debate defending the Triune God of Christian Scripture and Mr. Wallis inconsistently claims agnosticism and atheism with respect to this God. If Mr. Wallis does not want to debate concerning the God his opponent actually believes in then that is his choice, but it is not particularly beneficial to talk about agnosticism toward Ahura-Mazda when the debate, opponent, and arguments have almost nothing to do with Ahura-Mazda. Red Herring.

Wallis offers one more item in his line of defense for agnosticism claiming, “It could be that the Biblical God exists, and that Mr. Bolt has simply misinterpreted Romans 1—the principal text from which he concludes that even self-described atheists believe in God.” In other words, ‘but that’s your interpretation!’ (It is odd to me that such a charge is rarely if ever applied in cases where other literature or words are being discussed but as soon as some case is made from the pages of Scripture someone inevitably retreats to pointing and exclaiming, ‘but that’s your interpretation!’) There are some serious worries for Mr. Wallis here since this is the last of his attempts to counter my argument against his agnosticism. There are fatal problems with this last effort. Assume for the sake of argument that I do in fact misinterpret Romans 1. There are at least three reasons that this misinterpretation will not save Mr. Wallis from the argument being offered against agnosticism. First, even if Romans 1 is “the principal text” it does not follow that it is the only text which teaches a universal knowledge of God and so there may be other texts (and in fact there are) from which to argue the premise in question. Second, it is not enough to merely suggest as a bald assertion that I could be misinterpreting Romans 1 as a response to the argument offered against agnosticism. Third, even if it were actually the case that the concept of God I adhere to is not the biblical concept of God it is irrelevant to whether or not one can be agnostic with respect to the concept of God in question. To clarify, Mr. Wallis should be spending much less time concerning himself about other concepts of gods (or in this hypothetical case even the biblical concept of God) and much more time actually defending his agnosticism concerning the existence of the God his opponent believes in! Thus even assuming that I do “misinterpret” Romans 1 Mr. Wallis has not stopped the argument against agnosticism from taking its toll on his position. However the counter to my argument that Mr. Wallis offers fails long before we ever get to the point of reasoning through what has been offered above. It is not enough for Mr. Wallis to merely suggest that I could be misinterpreting the passage from Romans 1. In order to stave off the argument against his agnosticism using this line of reasoning Mr. Wallis must show that I have actually misinterpreted the passage in question as well as all of the others that have similar implication. Otherwise Mr. Wallis is simply hand waiving. Indeed, if it is possible that I have misinterpreted the passage in question then it is likewise possible that I have interpreted the passage in question correctly. Mr. Wallis would have needed to show where I have interpreted the passage in question, why my interpretation is incorrect, and what alternative interpretation is correct. He has not done so. As strong as these reasons for rejecting Mr. Wallis’s attempted response to the argument are there is one important fact that has been overlooked until now. Mr. Wallis is not really disagreeing with my interpretation of the Romans 1 passage, because in the debate I read the passage; it was not just an interpretation. I offer the passage here again in English and Greek.

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Romans 1:18-23 (ESV)

 αποκαλυπτεται γαρ οργη θεου απ ουρανου επι πασαν ασεβειαν και αδικιαν ανθρωπων των την αληθειαν εν αδικια κατεχοντων

διοτι το γνωστον του θεου φανερον εστιν εν αυτοις ο θεος γαρ αυτοις εφανερωσεν

τα γαρ αορατα αυτου απο κτισεως κοσμου τοις ποιημασιν νοουμενα καθοραται η τε αιδιος αυτου δυναμις και θειοτης εις το ειναι αυτους αναπολογητους

διοτι γνοντες τον θεον ουχ ως θεον εδοξασαν η ηυχαριστησαν αλλ εματαιωθησαν εν τοις διαλογισμοις αυτων και εσκοτισθη η ασυνετος αυτων καρδια

φασκοντες ειναι σοφοι εμωρανθησαν

και ηλλαξαν την δοξαν του αφθαρτου θεου εν ομοιωματι εικονος φθαρτου ανθρωπου και πετεινων και τετραποδων και ερπετων Romans 1:18-23 (NA 26)

Conclusion

The argument that Mr. Wallis quotes from me is as follows:

• If God exists, then everyone knows that God exists;

• Mr. Wallis does not know that God exists;

• Therefore, God does not exist. [5:00] 

We can assume for the sake of argument that agnosticism is true, but when we do so and follow the argument through to its conclusion we see that God does not exist. However if we can know that God does not exist, then agnosticism is false. Thus agnosticism, if true, is false. Mr. Wallis has attempted to reject the first premise of the argument by pointing out that the argument is assuming a particular conception of God. While this is true, it is irrelevant. Mr. Wallis concludes his post by proclaiming his agnosticism with respect to the Christian God in particular writing, “I must remain agnostic to the existence of the Christian God.” The argument quoted above is an argument against agnosticism with respect to the Christian God in particular, thus it is exceedingly odd that Mr. Wallis is attempting to get out of the argument by pointing out that it pertains to a particular conception of God which additionally happens to belong to the person he was supposed to be debating! Mr. Wallis has also attempted to salvage his agnosticism by rejecting the first premise of the argument through claiming that it is possible that I have misinterpreted the passage from Romans 1 even though in actuality I read the passage yet this is not a counter-argument at all and even if it were it fails to accomplish what Mr. Wallis needs it to accomplish as already described above.
Please note that the argument discussed in this post was a minor one and was not even the main argument I offered from agnosticism, much less my main argument for the debate. It is simply not the case that Mr. Wallis “must remain agnostic to the existence of the Christian God.” The opposite is the case. Mr. Wallis must not remain agnostic to the existence of the Christian God. He cannot rationally do so. Unfortunately for him Mr. Wallis inconsistently affirmed atheism with respect to the Christian God during the course of the debate and failed to satisfy the burden of proof for his denial of God’s existence. In affirming agnosticism he fell prey to the argument offered against that position. In conclusion, I find some of the comments that have come in regarding this debate to be rather troubling. I cannot imagine how someone could possibly believe that Mr. Wallis prevailed in the debate when he does not even know his own position; whether he is an atheist or an agnostic. I am quite thankful that as a Christian Theist I do not have these problems!

_________________________________________

EDIT: Response from Ben Wallis with commentary

Mr. Wallis has responded to my post and unfortunately remains unconvinced. There is a difference between proof and persuasion, and while Mr. Wallis is not persuaded I do not see that he has made any substantial objections to the proof I have offered. I will quote his response to my post in full here and insert my comments throughout.

“Chris, Wow, thanks for the quick response! I’m surprised to see that here you have focused most on your argument against agnosticism, instead of your argument from inductive justification (which as I said before I thought was more promising, if unconvincing).”

Since the argument against agnosticism was addressed in the debate recap post, has been frequently misunderstood, and is easier to address than the argument from induction I chose to comment on it first. However this does not mean that I may not come back to comment more on the other version of the argument from agnosticism I offered or any of the other arguments I offered during the debate.

“However, I’m still not sure what it is you think you’ve proved by it. It seems like you might want to say that a person should not describe himself as an agnostic unless he is unsure about your particular conception of Yahweh. However, as I have reminded you, and as you have now acknowledged explicitly, yours is not the only conception on the table.”

It is however the only conception in the debate, the only conception in the argument against agnosticism, and the only conception that squares with Scripture.

“For example, take the conception of God, let’s call it Calvin* (Calvin-star) which is like yours in almost every respect except that Calvin* created a world where some people (e.g. myself) don’t know that Calvin* exists.”

I am not convinced that Calvin* is a coherent concept of God given the systematic nature of Christianity. Changing one tenet affects them all. For example, how does Calvin* hold everyone responsible if everyone does not believe in him? If Calvin* cannot hold everyone responsible, then no one is justly condemned. If no one is justly condemned, then there is no need for atonement. If there is no atonement, then there is no Gospel. And so on… What we end up with is something that is not very much like the Christian conception of God at all!

“Indeed, I very much doubt the existence of Calvin*…”

As do I.

“…and moreover, your argument against agnosticism doesn’t work with respect to Calvin*”

It is a good thing that I did not argue with respect to Calvin* then isn’t it?

“(1′) If Calvin* exists, then everyone knows that Calvin* exists; (2′) Mr. Wallis does not know that Calvin* exists; (3′) Therefore, Calvin* does not exist.

Clearly this argument is unsound since by definition (of Calvin*) the premise (1′) is false.”

Correct, but this is not the argument I offered.

“You seem to acknowledge this, instead suggesting that it is ‘irrelevant.’”

It is irrelevant. It is not the argument I offered.

“However, if I can’t rule out the existence of Calvin*, and there is no other God whose existence I accept, then am I not justified in calling myself an agnostic?”

With respect to particular gods, but not with respect to the Christian God (recall: “I can rule out the existence of any God which is said to make all people believe in him.” [emphasis mine]).

“You evidently think not, which I find quite strange.”

I cannot for the life of me understand why it is strange to call an outright rejection of the Christian God a hard atheistic stance toward the Christian God.

“Perhaps you only want to say that in the CONTEXT OF OUR DEBATE we should only talk about your personal, particular conception of Yahweh, let’s call it Calvin/Bolt.”

Of course my “personal, particular conception of Yahweh” is not only mine but many others’ as well. It is certainly not restricted to me and it is not restricted to Calvinists. There is a good reason for this: the Bible teaches it. It certainly would make sense to stick with the concept of God in question in the context of a debate.

“So I should not call myself an agnostic because it suggests that I am unwilling to deny Calvin/Bolt. Instead, you might suggest, I should openly deny the existence of Calvin/Bolt, and defend my denial.”

Correct.

“Yet this is exactly what I did in the debate.”

Which is a problem since this contradicts the agnostic position allegedly defended.

“I clearly stated that I do deny Calvin/Bolt, and defended my denial by pointing out that my own unbelief rules out his existence.”

Then why defend agnosticism with respect to said God? And if agnosticism is not being defended with respect to said God but rather with respect to other gods, what does this have to do with the debate or the argument in question?

“After all, if Calvin/Bolt exists, then I believe that Calvin/Bolt exists. Since I do not believe that Calvin/Bolt exists, it follows that Calvin/Bolt does not exist.”

Which is essentially the argument.

“But it does not follow that Calvin* does not exist.”

And I never argued that it does follow. Again this is irrelevant.

“Now, you object to this defense by pointing out that my argument is based on subjective experience, and arguments from experience are somehow unacceptable. However, please keep in mind that my argument is not aimed at convincing you (or anyone else for that matter) of the nonexistence of Calvin/Bolt, but only showing how it is that, from my subjective point of view, I can rationally deny the existence of Calvin/Bolt…After all, the existence of Calvin/Bolt has direct implications for my experience. If I can deny those implications, then I can deny by extension the existence of Calvin/Bolt. And while my denial may not be convincing to someone who does not share my subjective point of view (at least insofar as I am not a believer in Calvin/Bolt), I do not intend it to do so.”

An autobiography concerning alleged subjective experience does not constitute an argument that fits the context of a debate. (Imagine if I had offered the song that I quoted from in my post for the sake of debate.) In other words the burden of proof was never met. This goes well with the concern prior to the debate that atheism is not able to be defended in debate. So much the worse for it!

“It is quite sufficient for me to point out that there is no good reason to believe in Calvin/Bolt, even if other people lack the unbelief required to deny it in the way I can.”

Yet no case was ever made that “there is no good reason to believe in Calvin/Bolt.”

“Of course, the reason for my unbelief in Calvin* is the lack of available warrant. I can’t find any good reason to believe in Calvin*.”

Neither can I.

“Similarly, I take the position that you haven’t found any good reason to believe in Calvin/Bolt.”

While this may be true, the additional position of hard atheism toward this conception of God was also taken but never objectively defended.

“If you can’t justify your belief in Calvin/Bolt, then I hope you will agree that you should give up that belief.”

Perhaps, although I have no idea what this would look like.

“Once you do so, then you will have the subjective point of view required to deny the existence of Calvin/Bolt.”

I find it quite telling that Mr. Wallis is so excited about subjectivism. Of course the entirety of what Mr. Wallis is saying can be turned around anyway. For example, “If you can’t justify your belief in agnosticism/atheism, then I hope you will agree that you should give up that belief. Once you do so, then you will have the subjective point of view required to affirm the existence of Calvin/Bolt.” That would not be a very good argument at all though. I do not use it and I am not convinced by Mr. Wallis’s use of it.

“However, that won’t matter very much to you, because you still won’t be able to deny the existence of Calvin*, which is just like Calvin/Bolt in all the most important respects.”

It should be pointed out that as things currently stand I can deny the existence of Calvin* whereas Mr. Wallis cannot. (An omniscient being told me that Calvin* does not exist.) Mr. Wallis is correct that he cannot deny the existence of Calvin*, but again none of this even begins to touch on the problem that the argument against agnosticism with respect to the Christian God entails for Mr. Wallis. He should be clear about whether or not he is agnostic with respect to the Christian God. If he wants to take issue with the way that I understand the Christian God then that is fine, but he has that conception to deal with and he needs to offer an argument as for why he thinks my understanding of the Christian God is wrong. If he is trying to say that he may be agnostic with respect to other gods but not with respect to the Christian God then that is fine as well, but he did not offer an objectively sound argument for the resulting atheistic position by his own admission.


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Responding to the call for debate opponents (Ben Wallis)

[…] Responding to the call for debate opponents (Ben Wallis) By C.L. Bolt ⋅ July 10, 2011 ⋅ Post a comment Filed Under  Ben Wallis, clbolt, debate Ben Wallis has issued a debate challenge claiming that he is now, “prepared to defend the alternative position that we do not know whether God exists.” If true, this is fine news, as the last time he was engaged on his agnosticism he was not, in my opinion, at all prepared to defend the position that we do not know whether God exists. In fact I wrote a post addressing Ben’s failure to defend agnosticism. […]

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