PZ Myers gives exactly the right response to “presuppositionalist” Sye

A number of years ago, back when I was still in college, I got invited on to a Christian podcast IIRC called “The Narrow Mind” (way to play to stereotypes there!). It ended up being one of my first encounters with a branch of Christian apologetics called “presuppositionalism.” Basically, presuppositionalism involves declaring that all reasoning depends on the truth of Christianity, then asking an atheist a bunch of questions, then declaring that the atheist’s inability to answer the questions to the presuppositionalist’s satisfaction proves that all reasoning depends on Christianity and therefore Christianity is true. It’s a total non-sequitur, but it can rhetorically effective if you don’t know how to shut it down.

I learned this the hard way. The interviewer, a pastor named Gene Cook, had invited me on to discuss, I think, the Canaanite genocide but midway through started asking questions about epistemology. I tried to answer them as best I could, but eventually got confused about what Cook was trying to say and told him to answer his questions we’d have to continue in text. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have the whole “dealing with hostile interviewer” thing down, wasn’t very forceful, said “um” a lot, and generally didn’t make myself look good. Then for the podcast Cook tacked on a thing at the end declaring that because I didn’t answer his questions, therefore he was right, and I had no chance to respond to that part.

There’s another presuppositionalist named Sye Ten Bruggencate I’ve previously seen around online. Apparently he and Eric Hovind showed up at Reason Rally with a video camera and kept pestering PZ Myers with it. The fourth time this happened, PZ called Sye a “slimy motherfucker” and told him “you’ve said such absurd things that I don’t need to employ my reasoning, I can just laugh and shoo you away.” Sye responded with several more questions, eventually causing PZ to ask, “what are you driving at?” With that question, Sye decided he had gotten the footage he’d wanted, shook PZ’s hand, and left. This then got turned into a video where that presents the encounter as a victory for Jesus.

What idiots. Seriously. Peppering someone with a lot of questions, and then declaring a “gotcha” when they try ask you a question and figure out what the hell you’re trying to say makes no sense. Even as propaganda. In particular, I don’t understand why the abrupt warp-up after PZ’s question got included in the final video, because that makes it transparently obvious that Sye wasn’t interested in an honest conversation. He was just trolling for footage to use for later propaganda purposes.

I’m only bothering to blog about this because of what Stephen Law posted about the video: “This is not Myers’s finest hour. Sye’s approach is an example of one that scientist atheists such as Myers tend to struggle with. You really need some philosophical knowledge and skill to cope at all well with Sye (and even then he is an extremely slippery customer)….”

I like most of what Law writes (I worry I’m using that qualifier a lot lately…) but, WTF? It’s not like Law can claim PZ did a poor job of responding to Sye’s argument, because Sye didn’t even have an argument. “What are you driving at?” is exactly the right thing to say when someone is asking a lot of questions in a way that suggests they think they’re making some kind of point, but it’s impossible to tell what the point might be. Law looks like he’s just seizing on a bad excuse to announce how great the things he focuses on are.

(Okay, it’s official. Too much negativity is creeping into this blog. Tomorrow, I shall make a post titled “The Big Thread of Happy Things!” Seriously.)