Matt Dillahunty vs David Robertson: “unbelievable” doesn’t even begin to describe it!

Summer of 2012 and my family and I are doing Route 66 from East to West. Austen Texas is not part of that route but I persuade my family to make a (huge) detour so that we can be in Austen on Sunday evening and meet the guys from the Atheist Experience.
So that’s what we do and while I’m there I ask Matt if he might be interested in appearing on a show we have in the UK called “Unbelievable”. Yeah he says, maybe.

So now almost two years later it’s finally happened and Matt appeared to debate with David Roberston. It was described by Justin Brierley, the show’s host as a “clash of the Titans”. This was over-selling DR a bit, as Matt Dillahunty is a very famous atheist debater and DR is virtually unknown. Still, it doesn’t follow from that that DR can’t be good, just undiscovered….

But the show revealed that DR deserves his anonymity. He was an embarrassment to listen to.

First, he could not understand Matt’s objection to his argument from design (briefly that we can only recognise design if we have something undesigned to compare it to.) Straw-manning like crazy he burbled on about God being incomparable and that’s another argument for why he must exist.

Next he argued from ignorance. There are only three ways (according to DR) in which the universe could have come about. One of those options was God and that was clearly the right option because it was unacceptable to say “I don’t know”. Seriously, that is what he argued.

Then there came a bit about the Holocaust. This is (apparently) DR’s specialist area and he used it to support the argument from morality (pretty much as WLC does – see my last post).

The discussion about whether or not Hitler was a Christian was something of a distraction, IMO, from the real debate. But why did DR claim that having read all Hitler’s diaries “including” the ones that were faked, he could authoritatively say that Hitler was not a Christian? There are no diaries other than faked diaries! How does reading forged diaries give DR any insight into Hitler’s beliefs?

DR claimed he “didn’t have enough faith” to be an atheist. He was the rational one, relying on evidence, logic, reason, unlike that faith-head Matt! So DR thinks faith is irrational – or at least less rational than a worldview based on evidence, right? But when Matt said that faith was what people used when they had no evidence, DR got very cross. He accused Matt of mangling the English language (and even descended to a racist dig, referencing Matt’s American nationality). Faith, he now claimed was based on reason and evidence. So, DR must have meant that Matt was an atheist because he had more reason and evidence than for his beliefs that DR had?

As usually happens in these debates, each side declares a resounding win for “their” side and one theist in particular was very clear who had won. Matt’s performance was described as “a total wipeout…cringeworthy…embarrassing…”

And who was it who was so sure that Matt had been soundly beaten? Why it was none other that DR himself, posting on his own blog “the wee flea”.

I posted to challenge him on (just one of) his failures – his misrepresentation of Matt’s rebuttal of DR’s argument from design.

Here is a link to the blog

it’s not complete because DR hasn’t posted my last reply. For those who are interested, this is what I said:


Thank you for finally giving a response to the actual question.

The quote you give is not meaningless. If the universe shows evidence of design, where do we find lack of design so that we know what that looks like and know that the universe is different? Paley, you will recall, used the example of a stone compared to a watch. The stone (he claimed) was obviously not designed whereas the watch unmistakeably was. It was the contrast between the two which enabled him to draw the inference. But in Paley’s worldview, the stone must also have been designed. So he was walking through a field of watches, on a world of watches inside a universe of watches.

You used the same notion yourself when you talked about “I love you” being spelt out in sea shells. We all know that that is evidence of design BECAUSE WE ARE ABLE TO COMPARE IT WITH WHAT WE SEE NORMALLY IN NATURE WHICH DOESN’T SHOW THAT EVIDENCE OF DESIGN. If the sea shore you are walking along is in fact designed by God, why would “I love you” spelt out in sea shells look any different to anything else you find in nature, which is all (in your view) intelligently designed?

“The Bible itself points out….” This is question-begging and an argument from authority.
“I find it somewhat amusing….” Argument from incredulity.
“You have a presupposition….” Ad Hominem.
Are we playing “fallacy bingo”?

Matt did not talk about comparing the start of the universe to anything else. He did say that we should be prepared to accept that the honest answer to some questions (including the Origin of the universe) is “I don’t know”.

I didn’t answer you earlier 2 options argument because it was another straw man. It was not actually canvassed during the debate although there was some discussion about the question of how many options there could be about the beginning of the universe. I have already dealt with how you misrepresented Matt’s arguments on that subject.

But as you now wish to have an answer to that point, let me deal with it. Option 1 and option 2 are mutually exclusive. There is no third option. But if you ask: Which is true? Option 1 or Option 2 there is a third *answer* which is to say “I don’t know”. Let me give you an analogy:
Option 1- I am writing this while sitting out in my garden
Option 2 – I am not writing this while sitting out in my garden

Only one of those can be true and there is no third option. So which is it? What’s your answer David? You must have one.

Addendum:  Since posting the above, I should say that DR has published this post and a brief further exchange.


14 thoughts on “Matt Dillahunty vs David Robertson: “unbelievable” doesn’t even begin to describe it!

  1. I haven’t bothered listening to Robertson’s latest clashes on Unbelievable? against Matt Dillahunty.

    Robertson’s previous appearance against Terry Sanderson of the NSS on religion in education in schools did him few favours and consisted of him ranting over his (very polite and reasonable) opponent, firing off childish insults such as, “This is a stand up comedy routine!” and “You people are living in a fantasy world!” before changing the topic complete and not responding to his opponent’s last comment.

    The comments on the Unbelievable? Facebook thread and Robertson’s blog indicate that more of the same went down.


  2. wow I must disagree david robertson did a brillaint Job and regarding the Hitler discussion in the debate – yes it was a total wipeout – Matt did get butt whipped . To even suggest that that The Nazis where genuine Christians shows the shallowness of any atheist in regards to understanding what the teachings of Christ are. It shows ignorance and a distorted understanding of Christian doctrine.

    • Lion, thanks for your comments, but I can only say that if you think that David did a “brilliant Job” (sic – was that a biblical reference?) then you are easily pleased.

  3. Just saw this argument. I don’t really use design arguments. I’d like to think that I can think though. So this is off the top of my head. The Dillahunty argument seemed like a trick. I think the resolution is to put things in terms of “apparent” and “not apparent” design. You can believe or know that the x is an F even if x *appears* to be a G. It is furthermore wrong to say that you cannot even have the concept of G if there are no actual Gs. Otherwise, no one could have the concept of, say, a unicorn.

    So the rock appears to be undesigned even if you believe it is designed. On the other hand, the watch appears designed, and you also believe it is.

    The argument would proceed by pointing out that the universe appears designed. Then, presumably, the proponent would go on to argue that its actually being designed is the best explanation of this appearance. I’m not endorsing this, just explaining.

    So I judge Dillahunty’s argument to be an utter failure. I thought about this for all of 10 seconds. I heard this Dillahunty guy was a real intellectual menace. For my first experience of his stuff, I must say I’m not too impressed.

    • Hello Paul. Thank you for your comments. I appreciate the fact that you took the time to advance an actual argument against Matt’s position. Also, you have at least engaged with the point rather than missing it entirely, as Robertson did.

      I think that you are falling into a kind of category error when you talk about x having the appearance of F when in fact it is a G. The whole point of Matt’s argument is that “design” and “non-design” are not two entirely independent concepts. They are mutually exclusive but conceptually inter-dependant. Just as we could have no concept of light if we did not have a concept of darkness, so we can have no concept of design unless we have a concept of non-design. So it would better express the issue if you were to say that x can be F even if it has the appearance of ~F. But whether x is F or ~F we cannot have a concept of F without having a concept of ~F and we cannot have a concept of ~F without having a concept of F.

      I agree that it is logically possible that everything in nature could in fact be designed, whilst some things gave appearance of being undesigned. However, I think this is a tricky corner to defend. When Philip Gosse proposed his Omphalos Hypothesis (that the world was only 6,000 years old, but with the appearance of being millions of years old) he was criticised and ridiculed (somewhat unfairly in my view) for having suggested that God had salted the rocks with fake fossils to test people’s faith. The same charge could more fairly be levelled against anyone who wants to defend the argument from design on the basis you suggest. God has cunningly created an illusion of undesign in his designs. For what purpose? To deceive his creatures? So that we could have a concept of “design” and “undesign” in order to make an argument from design? If anyone does want to defend that last proposition, it would make for an interesting argument but I suspect that neither Robertson nor anyone else who advances the design argument will be rushing to take it up.

      • Hello fjanusz2,

        //”So it would better express the issue if you were to say that x can be F even if it has the appearance of ~F.”//

        Didn’t I? I guess I was assuming that we’d all understand that G ≠ F, and thus saying x can appear an F even when x is in fact a G is *logically equivalent* to what you wrote. So I’m not sure what “category error” I fell into. (As an aside, I wonder if you think the concept of ‘existence’ is interdependent with ‘non-existence’, or if you can have the concept of one without the other? If so, why? If not, what does it mean to have the concept of non-existence or nothingness?)

        I’m afraid your last paragraph moved way too quickly. Most design arguments are inductive arguments, either from analogy or inference to the best explanation. They admit we get our concepts of design and undesign from comparing human artifacts with natural kinds. Thus, plenty of things appear to be undesigned in this sense. The argument then says that some things in nature (eyes, maybe) or nature as a whole (fine tuned universe, maybe) bear more in common with the designed things we know than the undesigned things. They then claim God is the best explanation for those things.

        Still, some things will appear designed and some won’t. This is a claim about us. Things that appear designed have a kind of purpose, function, complexity, etc. We see this in watches and, the argument goes, in *some* things in nature. Those things “bear the marks” of intelligence. As far as I’m aware, this does not commit the theist to saying that *everything* bears these marks. There may indeed be *some* things in creation that are in fact designed but do not bear those marks very obviously, only very subtly, too subtle for our minds. Is this because God wants to trick us? That’s hasty.

      • G is not logically the same as ~F because logically something might be both F and G but it cannot be both F and ~F (law of excluded middle). I don’t want get too bogged down in technicalities, but it is an important distinction. For instance, a person might think that a crocodile was a log. Now certainly a log is not and cannot be a crocodile. But the person could make that mistake even if they had never seen or heard of a crocodile and had no notion that such a creature existed. That puts the mistake in an entirely different category from mistaking design for undesign: these are different sides of the same coin and it is not possible to understand either without also understanding the other.
        I do think that in order to have a concept of existence you must have a concept of non-existence. This doesn’t mean that you have to be able to imagine what it would be like not to exist. It just means that you have to be able to use the term appropriately in any given context (e.g. “Unicorns do not exist.”)

        As you say, the argument from design is an argument by inference to the best explanation of the facts. But the best explanation of the facts will usually be the simplest and the one which requires us to introduce the fewest unevidenced assumptions in support of it. In order to defend the argument you have had to introduce two wholly unwarranted assumptions:
        1. That many things which are in fact designed appear undesigned.
        2. That these things appear undesigned to us, not because they lack evidence of design, but because we lack the ability to see that evidence.

        Your only reason for introducing these assumptions is to make the argument compatible with theism, which the very thing it was supposed to prove in the first place.

    • Paul, you say,” I’d like to think that I can think though.”
      Then you admit, “I thought about this for all of 10 seconds.”
      I suggest that next time you take a little longer to “think” before posting a reply.
      One can have a concept of a unicorn, because one can have a concept of the elements of a unicorn – equine morphology, add-on single horn, WLC teeth etc.
      Please try again. But take more than 10 seconds this time.

      • Unicorns are not equines. That’s metaphysically impossible. Subtle distinctions in modal epistemology, I know. Second, the point was you have the concept of an X without experiencing an X. But if you want to play your game of Aristotelian abstraction, then do the same with “design.” Take away a mind, intention, include randomness, etc.” Finally, you have the concept of “non-existence,” an abstraction won’t work here. So, yeah, seems like 10 seconds is all I need to know you can have the concept of X without experiencing any X, and X can be a Y though appear to be an X.

      • Paul, you say ” Take away a mind, intention, include randomness, etc”
        Take away a mind?
        You appear not to have noticed that you need a mind to take away a mind. If you want to talk about a “mind-free concept” then I will award you my Oxymoron of the Month prize.

        That said, I admit that I’ve got the picture now. You Google articles on philosophy, then randomly stick together odd words and phrases so that you can convince yourself that you are “doing philosophy.”
        Come back when you’ve actually read a few books and can at least give the impression that you know what you’re talking about.
        Oh, and drink less coffee.
        I’m just saying….

  4. I understood his astonishment when he saw my parrot flying around my living room.
    “How did you make that?” he asked in amazement.
    He came from a planet which was very similar to ours, but had two signifcant differences. Technologically they were far more advanced, and were in the process of perfecting teletransportation. Which is why he ended up sitting on my sofa, many light-years from home.
    The other difference, which had provoked his question, was that on his planet, evolution had produced living species almost identical to those on earth, with one huge exception – there were no animals capable of flight. No winged insects and no feathered creatures. Human beings had invented manned flight – aeroplanes, rockets, satellites. But flight had never occurred spontaneously in nature. Therefore his question was logical. A simple syllogism led him to ask it.
    P1 Everything that flies is man-made.
    P2 This parrot is flying.
    C. This parrot is man-made.
    This would be Paul’s inference to the best explanation. But it would be wrong. “Best” means I haven’t got a better explanation. That doesn’t mean that my explanation is right, but I’ll argue as if it were valid and workable.

    PS A little challenge to all proponents of I.D. You are right. DNA is a code and it was designed. In fact, I designed it. Do you believe me? If not, why not? If I offered you $1,000,000 to prove that I am a liar, how would you go about it? Why are you not doing the same thing with your designated Designer? (I sense some special pleading in the offing…)

  5. fjanusz2,

    I said F ≠ G. Thus G is logically equivalent to ~F. This is obvious.

    Good, you can have the concept “non-existence” without experiencing or conceiving of “non-existence.” By parity of reasoning, you can have the concept of non-designed even if you never experience such.

    As for the unwarranted assumptions. It’s not “unwarranted” to say a designed thing “appears” undesigned. It’s simply a statement reporting someone’s psychological state. Are you suggesting that, for all x and y, if x is designed and y is a rational cognizer, then x will *appear* to be designed to y? I’d like to see how you’d justify that. As for (2), the seems wholly uncontroversial too. Thus I’m prima facie justified in holding it. Now, perhaps you have a defeater for me, like “There does not exist an x such that x is designed and too subtle for humans to recognize as designed.” Got an argument for that?

    Lastly, as far as I know, design theorists are not committed to everything’s *direct* design. They may hold to some kind of theistic evolution such that God created the laws, life, etc., and then let things unfold in an evolutionary manner. Thus, some things are not directly designed. If this is consistent, then it’s false to say that every thing in the field is a “clock.”

    • Paul said, “you can have the concept “non-existence” without (…) conceiving of “non-existence.”
      Exactly. Just like I can have thoughts about elephants without thinking about elephants. I can have feelings of happiness without feeling happy, plans for tomorrow without planning tomorrow, and dreams without dreaming.
      Christianity is logically easy to practice because by the same reasoning I can have love for my neighbour without loving my neighbour.
      In this brilliant exposé, Paul has demonstrated that “having a concept” is completely different from “conceiving of”. Thus I can “have an existence” without going through the irksome business of “existing”.
      Well, I’m glad that one’s been sorted out.

      Oh, and I definitely need Paul as my defence lawyer to convince the jury that I did not “directly” kill my neighbour. I just pulled the trigger then let things unfold according to the laws of physics.

    • Paul,

      You are missing the point. The point is that if you are going to talk about something, anything, you need to have an understanding of what you are logically excluding. Certainly you can have a concept of x without having experienced x, but you cannot have a concept of x unless you have a concept of ~x. You cannot talk meaningfully about light if you have no concept of darkness. You will not understand “up” if “down” means nothing to you. If you say that something shows evidence of design, then to mean anything at all by that statement you must be saying that it differs from what the evidence which would show lack of design. It is reasonable to ask *how* it differs.

      It is unwarranted to say, without a scintilla of supporting evidence, that something which *appears* undesigned is *in fact* designed, which is what you were arguing. I am not for one moment suggesting that it never happens that what is designed appears undesigned. You are straw manning when you try represent that as my position. However, you are saying that EVERYTHING is designed, whether it appears so or not and that is a very bold claim to make without anything to back it up.

      If you think it is uncontroversial to claim that evidence of God’s design is everywhere but we miss it because it is too subtle for us, then I can only say that you and I have very different ideas of what is uncontroversial. The rest of your paragraph is further straw manning, for the reasons I have already explained. I am not saying that it is impossible for us *sometimes* to overlook evidence of design. What I am saying is that you have not produced the shadow of a ghost of a shred of an argument for believing that we are *always* overlooking it. Everywhere. The whole time.

      Finally, you change equines in mid-stream. You started by saying that what we thought was undesign was in fact design but we couldn’t see it. Now you appear to be switching to claim that what we see as undesign is the accidental and unforeseen by-product of forces and things which are themselves designed. Now, this is an equine of a very different colour, and things which are truly accidental and unforeseen would not be designed. But the idea is not coherent when applied to an omnipotent, omniscient God. Everything that God did, he would have to know the outcome of. As Richard has pointed out, if God made the physical laws and set the machine in motion, he surely would have known everything which it was going to produce and nothing about it was unplanned.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s