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Drange-Wilson Debate: Drange’s Third Rebuttal


In my first rebuttal, I took Pastor Wilson’s argument to be what I called “the Argument from Rational Thought” (ART). However, in his reply, Wilson indicated that I had misinterpreted his opening statement and that he was not actually putting forward an argument for the existence of God. What a bummer! It had certainly appeared that that was what he was doing. He had said as much in the debate agreement, and in his opening statement he wrote, “I will be presenting what is called a transcendental argument for God’s existence.” However, appearances can be deceptive and it seems now that I was mistaken.

1. Replace “TAG” By “TNAG”

Instead of putting forward an argument for the existence of God, Pastor Wilson apparently did something else. Could it be that he put forth a different argument, one that aims, not at the conclusion that God exists, but perhaps at some other conclusion? This is indeed suggested when he says:

The fact that rational thought exists does not entail the conclusion that God exists. It presupposes God’s existence. The argument is not “rational thought, and therefore God.” The argument is “God, and therefore rational thought.” God is never the conclusion.

The problem here is to state what the conclusion might be if not the proposition that God exists. It surely is not the proposition that rational thought exists. We certainly did not invest time in debating the truth or falsity of that! Indeed, there does not seem to be any alternate conclusion that might have been the focus of Wilson’s argumentative efforts.

The mystery is deepened by the next passage:

[M]any people accuse those who present the transcendental argument of committing the fallacy of petitio principii, that of begging the question. How can one debate the existence of God by assuming or presupposing that God exists? Are you not assuming [what] you are supposed to prove? Exactly so.

One might gather from this that Wilson views the Transcendental Argument for God (TAG) as a circular argument, one which begins with the assumption that God exists and ends with that very proposition as its conclusion, with “rational thought exists” as an intermediate step. TAG may thus be formulated as follows:

(1) The God of Christianity exists.

(2) Therefore, rational thought exists.

(3) Hence, the God of Christianity exists. [from (2)]

There are at least four problems with this interpretation. First, it conflicts with Wilson’s own pronouncement (above) that “God is never the conclusion.” Second, in his first rebuttal he wrote, “I am not seeking to argue to a particular conclusion.” So, apparently no argument would do. Third, it is totally unclear how step (3) is supposed to follow from step (2). Is it supposed to be ART all over again? That couldn’t be right, for Wilson said that “his argument” is very definitely not ART. And finally, let’s face it, blatantly circular reasoning such as (1)-(3) is simply absurd. No one could seriously put forward such nonsense.

Wilson says that the circularity “is not a problem because all ultimate questions involve circularity.” What is this supposed to mean? What is it for a question to involve circularity, and what has that to do with circular arguments? Wilson tries to clarify it by an example:

To the fellow who says, “… I base all my thoughts on reason” I would reply, “Oh? What is your reason for doing so?” … How can an embrace of reason be justified through an appeal to reason?

Wilson seems to think that he has somehow “trapped” this fellow and because of that it is all right to put forth arguments that are blatantly circular. But this is invalid reasoning on Wilson’s part. Even if he were to “trap” the poor fellow in his example, that certainly would not justify spouting such nonsense as (1)-(3), above. Furthermore, I do not see that anyone has been “trapped.” To the question “what is your reason for doing so?” the fellow could respond in some way that does not try to “justify an embrace of reason through an appeal to reason.” He could instead say, “That’s just the way I am and I can’t help it.” In other words, his use of reason may not be a matter of choice on his part. The question “what is your reason for doing so?” takes “reason” in the sense of “motive,” which assumes that some free choice was made. But the fellow may use reason just as he breathes: it is automatic, not a matter of choice. He can no more justify his use of reason than he can justify his breathing.

There is no argument other than ART that would better capture Wilson’s TAG. If ART is not it, then he simply has no argument at all. “TAG” is a misnomer and should instead be replaced by “TNAG”: the Transcendental Non-argument for God (not to be confused with Michael Martin’s TANG[1]). But what is TNAG? There are various versions. One of them is the following:

Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord!

This is an example of a non-argument for God. But Wilson’s version is slightly different from this one.

2. Mere Assertions

My hypothesis about what Pastor Wilson has done thus far is that he has made a series of assertions. They may be called “mere assertions” to distinguish them from the premises and conclusions of arguments. Here are a few examples:

(a) The existence of God must be assumed in order to debate it.

(b) Christianity is the only possible ground of rational thought.

(c) That rational thought exists presupposes God’s existence.

(d) All atheists hold a materialist worldview.

(e) The atheist cannot account for himself.

(f) Atheism entails its own falsity.

(g) Rational thought arising from inchoate matter is an incoherent concept, like squaring the circle.

This is just a partial list. There are dozens of such assertions scattered throughout the material that Pastor Wilson has thus far presented. I have combed through all that material and cannot find a single argument or reason to support any of these claims. That is why I call them “mere assertions.” They are presented totally without support.

This, then, is Wilson’s version of TNAG: a series of mere assertions. There is no argument, no sequence of propositions aiming at a particular conclusion which is supposed to follow from them. There is no reasoning, just asserting and nothing else. Wilson himself seems unaware of this. In his first rebuttal, he wrote, “I am seeking to show that God is the inescapable Premise, the necessary foundation from which all argument proceeds.” However, he never does show that! He never puts forward any argument for it whatever. He merely repeats the assertion over and over, in various forms, throughout his material, without ever giving any reason whatever to believe it. So, even though Wilson sometimes uses the expressions “my argument” or “transcendental argument,” that is totally misleading. There just is no argument there! I take his style to be simply “preaching to the choir.” That might go over well on his own website, but I doubt that it will go over well on the Secular Web.

3. Pursuing ART for ART’s Sake

Even though Pastor Wilson has denied that the argument called “ART” is his argument, nevertheless, in his second rebuttal (for whatever reason) he took a stab at defending ART against my six objections. He did not succeed for any of them. In what remains, I shall discuss why each of his attempts fail, even though all of this is irrelevant, given that ART is not Wilson’s argument.

Premise (2) of ART states that there are just two possible explanatory frameworks for the fact that rational thought exists: atheism and Christian theism. I attacked that premise, first, on the grounds that some theistic explanatory framework might be constructed other than a Christian one, and, second, on the grounds that an explanation might be constructed on the basis of agnosticism. In each case, it is shown that atheism and Christian theism are not the only possible frameworks for trying to explain rational thought. There could be a third alternative.

Pastor Wilson said that since he was debating an atheist he did not wish to address other forms of theism. In effect, then, he did not address my first objection. For all he said, non-Christian theism may very well constitute a third explanatory framework for rational thought. He left that point untouched. As for agnosticism, Wilson made some disparaging remarks about what he took to be various forms of the position, but said nothing irrefutable. I lack space to go into the details of this, but note that Wilson’s “types of agnostics” are not exhaustive[2], and, in any case, nothing he said showed that it is impossible to explain rational thought from an agnostic framework or perspective. So, ART’s premise (2) remains refuted.

According to premise (3) of ART, atheism entails (or presupposes) materialism, which is the view that everything that exists is reducible to matter and energy. My objection was simply that that premise is false. There is no contradiction in being a non-materialist atheist. The propositions that God does not exist (atheism) and that not everything that exists is reducible to matter and energy (non-materialism) are perfectly compatible with each other. It is up to Wilson to demonstrate how they are not compatible, and that is something he has not done. He implies that I need to be a materialist if I am unable to formulate an adequate non-materialist theory about propositions and other abstract entities. But that is a mistake. Whether or not I am able to do the thing is beside the point. Even if I should fail, that certainly would not make me a materialist! Wilson also suggests that materialism is common among atheists, but that has not been my experience. I know dozens of atheists in the field of philosophy, but not a single one of them espouses materialism. Premise (3) of ART is deader than a doornail.

ART’s premise (4) says that it is impossible to explain the existence of rational thought solely by appeal to matter and energy. I did not flatly reject that claim but allowed that it might be true. My objections were, first, that science has come a long way in explaining rational thought materialistically (which counts against the premise), and second, that (4) had not been shown to be true and so it was illegitimate simply to assume it in an argument. None of Pastor Wilson’s analogies in his opening statement adequately supported it. In his second rebuttal he wrote “When it comes to explaining immaterial phenomena, such as reason, scientists as scientists have absolutely nothing to say.” But why believe that reason is an immaterial phenomenon? There is no answer forthcoming. It is another “mere assertion.” So, I stand by my claim that, for all that Wilson has presented thus far, premise (4) of ART may very well be false.

According to ART’s premise (6), Christian theism can adequately explain the existence of rational thought. I probed what such an explanation might be. Pastor Wilson said that God, who is outside space and time, created everything to reflect his glory, and, since we are created in that being’s image, that explains rational thought. I found this alleged “Christian explanation” to be unclear and asked some questions about it. How can we be in the image of a being that is outside space and time? Answer: we have a “capacity to reflect righteousness and true holiness.” Not too helpful. How can a being outside time do any thinking or creating? No answer. Did God exist before time? Answer: yes, even though “before time” is admittedly incoherent. How does God create things? No answer. Why did God wait billions of years before creating beings who could worship him? Answer: he didn’t. The universe is only 6000 years old and only five days separate the origin of the universe from the origin of humanity. [I refrain from commenting on that.] Why did God make the universe so large in comparison to his worshiping creatures? No answer given.

What can one say about the above? Does it constitute an adequate explanation for rational thought? Obviously not. It would be like a “foundation of jello,” to use one of Wilson’s own analogies. Well, could an adequate “Christian explanation” be constructed? Maybe, but Wilson has not given us any reason to think so. Like premise (4), ART’s premise (6) stands as “mere assertion.”

I do not understand why Pastor Wilson even bothered trying to defend ART, seeing as he had rejected it as his argument, but, in any case, none of his attempts to defend it were successful. As for his TNAG, I haven’t a clue why he would eschew and forsake reasoning and instead make all those totally unsupported pronouncements (what I called his “mere assertions”). I chalk it up to a difference in “debate style” between us. Maybe at least on that point he and I would agree.


[1] TANG stands for the Transcendental Argument for the Nonexistence of God. See Martin’s discussion of it at: <URL:https://infidels.org/library/modern/michael_martin/martin-frame/tang.html>.

[2] For a fuller treatment of types of agnosticism, see my essay “Atheism, Agnosticism, Noncognitivism” at: <URL:https://infidels.org/library/modern/theodore_drange/definition.html>.

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