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The Bolt-Wallis Debate:
2010 Oct 20
A few weeks ago, Chris Bolt and I held an over-internet debate on the
existence of God. He and Brian Knapp proved to be gracious hosts, and I came
away from the event having had a splendid time of it, and with the impression
that they both felt similarly. More than just having a fun time, however, I
learned a great deal both in my preparation for and during the debate. In all
respects, then, I’m very happy with how things turned out. At some point in
the future, we may try our hands once again at persuasion, perhaps picking up
where we left off.
In the debate, Mr. Bolt argued for the existence of God, whereas I expressed
agnosticism on the subject, and argued that his arguments were unconvincing.
During the debate, Mr. Bolt offered up one argument for his prefered flavor of
Christian theism, and a second argument against my own agnosticism. He also
presented a number of counter-arguments to my responses. I will try to address
most of these in this summary.
His argument for Christian theism was borrowed from Reformed apologist
(1) If theism is not the case, then one cannot account for the uniformity of nature presupposed by inductive reasoning
(2) If one cannot account for the uniformity of nature presupposed
by inductive reasoning, then beliefs based on inductive reasoning are
(3) Beliefs based on inductive reasoning are warranted.
(4) Therefore, theism is the case. [18:05]
This argument succinctly captures the spirit of Mr. Bolt’s claim that the existence of a supernatural creator-deity is the only satisfactory solution to the
infamous problem of induction. Suggesting that deductively valid inferences
must underlie all our reasoning, he pointed out that we nontheists have no such
justification for our use of induction. According to Mr. Bolt, nontheism leads
us to a paradox, since inductive reasoning is deductively invalid without the
invocation of the Judeo-Christian deity Yahweh:
Reasoning invalidly is not reasonable at all; it is irrational. However,
everyone reasons inductively. The conclusion is that humans are
In response to this argument I offered two objections, the first of which is
that we simply must use induction, because we have no other means of planning
for action in the world; so, no epistemic “problem” of induction need cause us
an abundance of concern. From the debate:
In short, to reject induction is to paralyze onesself with skepticism.
So, to the extent that we don’t want to be paralyzed, we simply have
to go use induction. And if Mr. Bolt wants to remind us that we
have no guarantee induction will hold, I’m happy to agree; but that
won’t change the fact that we haven’t any other alternative. [45:55]
Several times during the debate, Mr. Bolt agreed that indeed it is “necessary” [75:40] for us to use induction. However, he argued that such an observation does not help us solve the problem of induction, pointing out that,
on nontheism, “it’s still unsupported, regardless of its alleged necessity for inferences” [60:50]. However, he appeared not to take my point that such an
epistemic problem does not threaten nontheism, and that we can live comfortably with a pragmatic justification for induction. Instead he argued that even
if we have a pragmatic solution now, only induction will allow us to apply that
solution to the future, in which case we will be guilty of circular reasoning. In
other words, even though he agreed that we must use induction, he concluded
that, on nontheism, we cannot “know” [61:20] that we must use it, remarking,
“that this assumption has been necessary for past inferences does not require
that it be necessary for future inferences” [61:00].
However, I don’t find this terribly threatening, either. It’s quite true that
we need induction to draw the conclusion that induction is required for acting
in the world. If this seems like a case of circular reasoning, remember that
we’re not attempting to epistemically validate induction. Inductive reasoning
is not something we can just discard if it grows too uncomfortable for us. In
other words, I’m not presenting a deductive argument to show that inductive
reasoning is justified. It’s not as if we have a choice to make—as if we must
decide whether or not to continue to use induction. Rather, we simply will do
so, because we have no alternative.
My second objection to Mr. Bolt’s argument for the existence of God pointed
out that theism is just as ill-equipped as nontheism to answer the epistemic
problem of induction. I said:
If we want to justify our assumptions, for example our assumption
of induction, then it won’t do to invoke new assumptions, unless
those new assumptions are themselves justified. In other words, it
doesn’t help us to trade in one unjustified assumption for another,
because if that’s all we do, then we’re still going to have unjustified
assumptions on our hands. [28:20]
Mr. Bolt responded by offering “faith” as an alternative to induction, pointing out that whereas unjustified assumptions are unacceptable on a nontheist
view, his version of Christian theism “provides for faith in our epistemic structure” [57:50]. With faith in the Testaments of the sixty-six-book Protestant
Bible, we can get everything we need for reasoning, including induction. He
So it’s not the case that having assumptions is a problem for the
Christian, though I would say that it is a problem for the rationalist—
the non-Christian—who will not allow faith in an epistemology.
And indeed I will not. “We should always question our assumptions,” I said
in the cross-examination period [34:15], adding that “I don’t think that blind
faith is ever a good idea” [36:00]. Even if faith were somehow a worthy means of
knowledge—and I think it’s fairly clear that it is not—why should we priviledge
it over induction? Why does faith need no justification, but induction does?
In any case, it seems redundant to turn to faith in order to get for ourselves
induction when we can simply accept induction directly.
In addition to his argument for the existence of God, Mr. Bolt also presented
an argument against agnosticism:
• If God exists, then everyone knows that God exists.
• Mr. Wallis does not know that God exists.
• Therefore, God does not exist. [5:00]
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.
In response, 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. 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]
Still, it could be that there exists a God which does not enforce belief, such
as the God of Islam or Judaism. 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. There are a
myriad of such possibilities, none of which I can rule out. This is what it means
to be an agnostic, and Mr. Bolt’s argument against agnosticism fails to take
that into account.
In sum, I think it’s fairly clear that Mr. Bolt’s argument for the existence
of God, while undoubtedly clever, falls well short of convincing. His theistic
reliance on faith is as epistemically unjustified as he claims is the nontheist’s
reliance on induction; and in any case we have no need of an epistemic justification since we are not in the position to make any actual decision on whether
or not to continue to use inductive reasoning. We simply will use it, whether
or not we think it’s usable. Mr. Bolt’s argument against agnosticism is still
less satisfactory, as he ignores the plethora of possible creator-deities (including
difference conceptions of Yahweh) outside his own personal view. 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.