The Debater’s Duty: Don’t Distort What You Dispute

I wrote this in a comment directed to someone who had tried to dispute Christianity, but who stated it in a form that no one believes it. Here I’ll put it forth as a general principle. Please hold me accountable to it, as I will also do with you. This is the debater’s freedom and the debater’s discipline: the debater’s duty, in other words

When it comes to contesting another’s position, you are both free and not free.

You are free to understand and to describe your opponent’s position any way you wish. You are free to distort it. You are also free to understand and represent it as they believe it, though it might take some effort on your part. If you want to dispute it in the form that your opponent believes it, though, you have no choice: you must understand and describe it the way your opponent it would.

Otherwise you can only debate a distortion, which is not to dispute your opponent’s position at all.


If your description of your opponent’s position sounds like something no one could believe,  it’s probably safe to conclude that no one believes it—especially your opponent.

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15 thoughts on “The Debater’s Duty: Don’t Distort What You Dispute

  1. Tom,

    Amen to this. Many atheists like to engage in what some author I read (can’t remember who) calls “burning straw men at the stake.” It generates much more heat than light.

  2. I’m going to leave aside, albeit with some concern, an important issue that permeates (or animates) atheists’ “thinking” about the points raised on this blog, and which as a result leads to very significant errors. Why am I using quotations around the word “thinking”? The capacity for reason in all humans is undermined, damaged, compromised, etc. by sin. Sin is, at the end of the day, something that dehumanizes both the subject (the one sinning) and the object/recipient (target) of sin. When someone intentionally sins against the First Commandment—whatever level of ignorance is potentially at play notwithstanding (which is what an atheist is)—my sense is the level of damage to their human nature is (like all intentional sin) self-inflicted and deeply, deeply destructive. Why? Quite literally, that which defines an atheist as a human—his capacity for reason (definition of a human being: a rational animal) is damaged, and the result is not just irrationality (as Rodrigues correctly notes under separate cover), but a lowering in ontological status… at times to below that of the brute animals… for no brute animal is even able, e.g., to torture their kind, to denigrate animalness in other animals, to desecrate graves, to rip unborn animals out of wombs, etc., etc.

    I repeat: all that is left to the side to focus on the message of this particular post.

    I think Tom and other believers here would agree that Christians actually agree with an atheist who denies the god he denies. What we Christians are saying (perhaps not as clearly as we should) is that those atheist arguments and denials are misdirected—at best, they’re convenient straw men, i.e., it’s not the God in which we have faith—the God we trust and, yes can know. Take the whole “evidence” shtick atheists love to employ (incorrectly): a god who moves around in time and changes (i.e., allegedly susceptible to human senses, that is the natural sciences), therefore gets either better or worse in some way, or a god that’s timeless and changeless who hence does nothing, or a god who expected to fit into an atheist’s a priori framework for “evidence,” are imperfect concepts of God.

    God’s perfection is not a “values” thing—it’s a “completeness” thing; it’s a “can’t add anything else because nothing’s missing” thing. God’s perfection is pure act, pure activity of knowing and loving… and being/existing because He is BEING itself: there’s no potency to change because, well, He’s “got it all.” He doesn’t change—which is the real reason He’s eternal: “eternal” doesn’t mean being around forever, it means not changing and hence time is utterly not applicable. God must be eternal because if He changes, then He’s a mixture of potency and act, therefore not actus purus, therefore not “complete”, therefore not perfect (in that sense) but only in process to becoming more perfect or complete. “What” He is, is Existence Itself: His Essence IS His Existence.

    (To stir the pot a bit, theistic personalists like William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, and others don’t believe this… that is to say, they deny Divine Simplicity, which is a bedrock of classical Christian theology. (IDers tend to ascribe to this notion, hence another reason why it is a fail.) Craig, in particular, denies it primarily because he overtly, openly, and staunchly ascribes to the grave metaphysical error of the univocity of being… which means chipping away at God’s transcendence. (And, which William C. Placher nicely criticized in his The Domestication of Transcendence.) I actually hold these guys accountable for their, albeit well-intended, attempts to make God more accessible to us (in the way they do), which results in little more than confusing atheists. My money is on an honest atheist being potentially more attracted to transcendence than to another being among beings… even if they’re not currently equipped to understand what I’m saying. So, the C.S. Lewisesque “mere Christianity” that Tom sometimes proposes here to counter atheist criticisms doesn’t apply, and in fact tends to muddy the waters. Divine Simplicity is a “non-negotiable,” and I’ll let Edward Feser (who has nicely rebuffed such errors) briefly explain why:

    For the classical theist, God is not “a person” or “a being”—not because he is impersonal or lacking in being, but because he is not “an” anything. He is not an instance of any kind. He is not in any genus. He does not merely participate in or “have” mind, life, existence, or anything else, the way we do. In that sense he doesn’t “have properties.” Indeed, he has no parts of any sort [Holopupenko: to have “parts”—abstract or not—is to be in potency to change], but is absolutely simple. If he were not, then he would be just one more piece of furniture in the universe among all the others, requiring an explanation of his own—an explanation of why he instantiates the properties he does.)

    Anyway, God doesn’t learn truth because He is all truth—He is Truth Itself. He can’t fall in love in the analogous sense that water can’t become wet. He can’t fall in love because He (again) is fully complete in the actus purus sense; He can’t fall in love because He loves unchangingly, i.e., eternally, i.e., it is impossible for God not to “exist,” “love”, be “omniscient,” “omnipotent,” etc. He cannot have these as “properties” because they are His Names (theologically-stated): those—and an infinitude of others—are what He is, culminating in the ultimate “isness”: Existence Itself (I AM WHO AM).

    That’s why it’s SO silly for atheists to ask non-starter questions like “who made God?” or “can He create a rock that He can’t lift?” Why? Because “a rock bigger than God can lift” is viciously self-contradictory but “omnipotent” is not. God “can’t” (ugh!!) make a rock bigger than He can lift any more than He can make anything else self-contradictory, i.e., meaningless. I mean, really… what does it mean to suggest a rock bigger than Bigness Itself? Echoing the above: to ask what caused God is like asking what causes water to be wet. God is Being Itself like (distantly analogously) water is wet: you can’t “make” water wet… and you can’t “make” God to be. He IS.

    So, atheists, please stop with the evidence thing: you don’t know what you’re talking about. Stop with your straw men and actually try to understand what we’re talking about before disagreeing or bashing the cute little (in some cases, demonic) straw men you enjoy boring us with.

  3. Holopupenko –

    Anyway, God doesn’t learn truth because He is all truth—He is Truth Itself… what does it mean to suggest a rock bigger than Bigness Itself

    How about “Could God make something so small It couldn’t fit something smaller inside it?”

    How could something be both Bigness Itself and Smallness Itself?

    And “Truth Itself”… I don’t get it. Are you saying that Godis the truth of things like, “I love my wife” or “2+2=4”, when I say them?

    And how could something that never changes act at a particular discrete time?

    [If we can get through those, maybe we can tackle Feser’s claim that a human soul (which is the form of the body) can exist without the body (when other forms go away when the object instantiating them goes away) by combining the form with an “act of existence”. That is utterly unintelligible to me. In what sense is “existence” an “act” – how could it be? And in what sense would such a form ‘exist’ when combined with this ‘act of existence’?]

  4. How about “Could God make something so small It couldn’t fit something smaller inside it?”

    Yes, he can, if we assume that he limits himself to his prior decisions concerning quantum limits. If not, then no. He created space, and he has sovereignty over it. It’s just that his sovereignty over x at time t and over y and time t cannot contradict, because that would be denying his own decisions.

    How could something be both Bigness Itself and Smallness Itself?

    Beats me. Don’t think it’s possible. I don’t even think God is Bigness Itself, for he is fully present in everything of every size. Bend your brain on it this way: When God created space, where did he put it? Before space, there was no “where.” He didn’t put it outside himself, inside himself, around himself, under himself, or in part of himself, because those spacial dimensions were what he created, not what he was working with when he created.

    I’ll let Holo deal with Truth itself.

    It’s probably not the case that God never changes. His nature never changes. His character never changes. His perfection never changes. There is a viable theory, though, that when God created time he made it in such a way that he experiences it, while also knowing every past and future event. So he could change in the sense that a few minutes ago he would have known, Tom is going to write about the creation of space, and now he knows, Tom has written about the creation of space. He doesn’t know more or less now than he did before, but the actual content of his knowledge has changed.

    This is an area in which I have only a dabbler’s level of knowledge. It involves A and B theories of time, and other abstruse and controversial topics. If I’m wrong about it, I’m wrong.

    The point remains, theologians speak of God as unchanging but not as static or inert; usually the term is “unchanging nature.”

  5. WRT Feser: have you read his books? It’s utterly unintelligible to all of us in this age unless we’ve done the work to study it. Then it actually begins to make more sense than what we thought we knew.

  6. Tom, I’ve checked out Feser’s “The Last Superstition” several times from the library and pored over it, but it doesn’t work for me. And when I ask questions about it of, say, G. Rodrigues, I get this.

    Even if I am stupid, just calling me stupid doesn’t help me to learn anything. In fact, it seems directed at not teaching me anything.

  7. Tom:

    If you’re ready to hold to the error that God changes, then that means He is in potency to something, i.e., He’s missing something that He could be… but that’s impossible since He is Existence/Being Itself. Are you sure you want to go there? (Neither William Lane Craig nor Alvin Plantinga have have “viable” theories (I’m assuming that what you were implying) just because they are philosophical authorities in some people’s eyes on certain philosophical issues.) In any event, your example of God knowing things doesn’t quite make sense.

    Further, per Aquinas, the definition of a nature is a complex (or locus) of powers properly coordinated to focus on one object as its telos (ST I-II, q1.a2.c), or you can use Aristotle’s definition “Nature is a principle or cause of being moved and of being at rest in that to which it belongs primarily, in virtue of itself and not accidentally. (Physics 192b21) These definitions are general and hold true for all substances, whether rational or non-rational living creatures, or inanimate objects. The definition locates the orientation toward an end within the nature itself as opposed to within a relation of the nature to something external. All natures, therefore, by definition move toward their respective ends.

    Do you see the problems (among others) in the way you’re using the term “nature” as applied to God? First, you’re applying the term to God in the same way you apply it to any contingent being, i.e., you’re repeating precisely the error Craig makes. (Vallicella and other also take univocalists to task on this.) This also comes out in the way you’re treating “space” and “time” and “bigness” and “smallness” or imposing quantum mechanics, etc. These are accidents—not substances: they’re not things in the full sense of thingness. The A and B theories of time are unnecessary—albeit interesting—inventions used by Craig to wow the unsuspecting to his side regarding the flawed Kalām argument. (He’s reducing a properly cosmological argument to a temporal one. Shame on him! Creation is not a change, and hence is atemporal.) You’ve read Platcher: he makes some very good points on this. Second, contingent beings move toward ends—proximate and Ultimate. God doesn’t need to “move” toward an end: HE IS THE END (Alpha and Omega).

  8. @6: see @2 first paragraph. G. Rodrigues is spot-on correct: see @2 last paragraph. Not knowing what one is talking about isn’t necessarily a problem unless accompanied by arrogance. It is especially problematic given the particular point of this post.

  9. Holopupenko – I’m sorry, I honestly don’t see how that answers my questions. For example:

    Creation is not a change, and hence is atemporal.

    OK, let’s grant that “Creation is atemporal”. I don’t see how incarnation could be atemporal. Indeed, as Tom’s happy to point out, Jesus was a historical figure – he existed, and interacted with the world, at a particular range of time.

    (BTW, I do not see how anyone could be “fully human and fully Divine”; how could one be a particular person and Bigness Itself? But that’s for another time, I suspect.)

    How could something fundamentally atemporal act at a particular discrete time?

  10. Ray,

    Holopupenko – I’m sorry, I honestly don’t see how that answers my questions.

    I think Holo was probably referring to the error of the univocity if being. My suggestion would be to reread Feser on univocal and analogical definitions and also the transcendentals.

    Edited to add: actually rereading I see that in true Holo style he was actually referring to damaged rational faculties. My suggestion still stands but I really don’t get how you can have read Feser and so misunderstand it, it’s almost like you don’t want to understand it. That’s not to say I expect you to agree with him … just demonstrate some kind if understanding of what you’ve read.

  11. Well, Melissa, ‘damaged rational faculties’ or no, I don’t understand it, and am trying to. And whether or not you believe it, I want to. Hence my asking questions.

    I understand some of the logic, but (a) I’ve already pointed out some assumptions the logic rests on are hard to verify, and (b) when the results of a chain of logic come out so weird (like an atemporal being interacting at discrete points in time) then I wonder why I can’t apply reductio ad absurdam.

    Attacking motives rather than actual questions is useless. I haven’t claimed that anyone here is afraid to answer my questions, or anything like that. Even if it were true – and I reiterate that I’m not claiming it’s true – what good would it do to talk about it?

  12. Ray,

    I don’t understand it, and am trying to. And whether or not you believe it, I want to. Hence my asking questions.

    The problem with this is the questions you ask. For instance this:

    And “Truth Itself”… I don’t get it. Are you saying that Godis the truth of things like, “I love my wife” or “2+2=4″, when I say them?

    The answer to your question is to read up on the transcendentals and the difference between univocal and analogical descriptions. I must admit I was unfair with my latest comment as I’m not sure whether they are covered in much depth (if at all) in TLS. There is definitely a discussion in Aquinas which it would be worth getting your hands on if you want on answer to your question. You can access the relevant passages on google books, just search Feser’s Aquinas for transcendentals.

    Another problem is that your questions or objections generally contain within them the same misunderstandings that have been pointed out previously but you do not correct. For instance, given what you’ve read what is wrong your sentence here:

    when the results of a chain of logic come out so weird (like an atemporal being interacting at discrete points in time)

  13. Malachi 3:6; James 1:17; Numbers 23:19; Psalm 102:26-27; Hebrews 13:8; Rev 22:13.

  14. Holopupenko –

    For instance, given what you’ve read what is wrong your sentence here:

    I do not know… so I asked. If something is atemporal – if “the Lord [does] not change” – then It cannot, for example, react or respond. Because that would imply a change. If there’s no change – then there’s no change.

    In fact, I do not see how It could be in any sense ‘conscious’. In science fiction, there’s the concept of a ‘stasis field’, inside which time stops. No time is experienced. If someone were enclosed in a stasis field, it’s perfectly obvious to me that they could not be termed ‘conscious’ in any sense. (If you disagree – what would they be conscious of?) Something atemporal could not, by the very same logic, be conscious either.

  15. 機會係個天俾嘅 yes. BUT it is only those who are prepared that can see and cltipaaize the chance given. The people who always blames god/命/天 that there is no chance is absolutely wrong! If they haven’t prepared, work hard or think hard, how can they see the chance themselves, even if they see the opportunity is right in front of them, they wont have the skills, connection, knowledge or experience to take advantage of it.How sad!!!Bomb

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