Friday, August 31, 2012

Vacula vs Chervin on NEPA podcast

This debate was somewhat one-sided, since Dr. Chervin brought fairly well-worn Aquinian arguments to her opening and didn't seem particularly well-prepared for any of the segments thereafter. However, it is worth listening to the beginning, because Vacula does an outstanding job of unleashing a relatively new sort of one-two punch: (1) An evidential argument from evil, followed by (2) Stephen Law's evil god hypothesis as premptive counter-theodicy. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Smith vs. Kern at OCCC

Just a few thoughts and takeaways on the debate last week between scientist Abbie Smith and pastor Steve Kern here in OKC.

This debate ostensibly centered around a policy question on what should be taught in public schools, but it immediately and perhaps inevitably came down to a contest between scientific and religious views of human origins. At this event, opposing views were not merely discussed, but physically symbolized by the opposing speakers. The age-old struggle between science and religion found itself incarnated in two persons: Science presented as forward-looking, edgy, smart, young, stylish and sexy; religion presented as the polar opposite on all points. Science rides in on a motorcycle, carrying a slide deck on a colorful MacBook, and talks excitedly of continually expanding the scope of human knowledge. Religion, by contrast, shows up in a grey-toned suit, with a sheaf of paper notes, and talks phlegmatically of how we'll never surpass the cosmogony of the Bronze Ages. At this point one might be forgiven for assuming that the debate was not merely organized, but actually choreographed.

The substantive content itself turned out to be overwhelmingly, almost sadly, one-sided. The only way for an ID-advocate to come off well in a public debate is to dive way down into the weeds using technical jargon in order to create the false impression of expertise to an audience of laypersons. For example, William Dembski can throw out a load of advanced (albeit misapplied) mathematics to back up his idea that it's virtually impossible to add useful information to complex genotypes, thereby obscuring direct evidence that this has in fact happened time and again by various processes (some of which were central to Smith's argument for common descent). Kern does not have a background in mathematics or microbiology or any other scientific field, so he is unable to avail himself of the jargon fire-hose gambit. He might could have gone for a Gish-gallop, but probably lacked the background to pull that off as well. Abbie's previous opponent was more formidable on all counts, and that is about the most damning thing I've ever written in any context.

Many people have asked me what the point is in holding debates at which the audience is already firmly in the tank for one side from the get-go and few people are lead to change their thinking significantly during the course of the evening. The answer to this is that the live audience isn't really the intended audience. The real audience is the YouTube audience, students who will hear one view in their biology classes and a different story entirely on Sunday morning, and need to see how a faith-based and reason-based stack up against each other when put head-to-head. The real audience are our children and their peers, those who will decide whether America will ultimately fulfill the theocratic vision of its Puritan forebears or the scientific vision of its Enlightenment Founders. Far more people will see this event online than in person, and with any luck it will help to tilt the balance in favor of truth, justice, and the scientific method.

Unbeliever rating: 4.5 stars
Believer rating: 1.5 stars
Overall rating: 3 stars

Monday, June 6, 2011

PZ Myers vs. Hamza Tzortzis in Dublin

This is a very strange debate in terms of setup (spontaneous confrontation on a Dublin street) but I still have to count it in because of the stature of the two debaters in terms of their following in their respective communities.

PZ leads off by trashing an Islamic pamphlet, which prompts Hamza to start in on the KCA for a bit, but PZ quickly changes the subject to emphasize evidential arguments rather than philosophical arguments grounded in everyday metaphysical and causal intuitions. They dabble in rudimentary epistemology for a bit, and eventually Hamza starts in on the glorious revelation that is the Quran, with emphasis on the specifics of embryology. They go on about this for quite awhile, with the Muslims making the usual argument that the Koran is just too advanced to be the product of their founding prophet writing without the benefit of divine revelation.

Overall, this one was pretty fun to watch, if not particularly groundbreaking. I'd love it if this sort of thing happened every Friday night in Bricktown.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Hitchens vs. Lennox in Edinburgh

Christopher Hitchens debated John Lennox at the Edinburgh International Festival, on whether atheism will provide a viable future for Europeans. The file is available for purchase online, but I don't recommend that anyone buy anything from the Fixed Point Foundation. There are far too many free files available of comparable or superior quality to their events.

Christopher Hitchens leads by arguing that terrible things have happened in Europe as a result of religion, and then he makes the giant leap that only secularism can save the day. He might well be right, but he did not deductively or inductively connect his conclusion to his premises. It may well be true that Abrahamic religion poisons everything European, but this does not logically imply that either secularism or atheism will have a good shot at salvaging Europe from a rising tide of fundamentalism both Christian and Muslim.

John Lennox makes the case that the so-called "New Atheists" have confused the essential message of Christianity with the abuses perpetrated by the political powers of Christendom, which is at least partly true, and is undoubtedly true in the case of Hitchens himself. It is surely irrational to tar one’s opponents with too broad a brush, however, in the next breath Lennox writes off all secular moral reasoning as mere post-modern chatter, thus committing precisely the same breach of reasoning and etiquette, confounding his opponent’s actual positions with those of his least admirable comrades. It gets worse, however; as he goes on to confound humanism with communism. At this point, it becomes clear that this man may safely be dismissed as a wellspring of serious criticism. He eventually gets around to making an argument that we have to assume that the universe was created in order to discover that it is intelligible. He goes on to talk about ethics for just a bit, claiming that our innate revulsion at certain actions must come from the God of Abraham rather than mere natural selection, an argument which might work on audiences ignorant of both cultural anthropology and the fallacy of the false dilemma. He closes by saying that if we cannot have eternal Heavenly justice, there is no point at all in seeking temporal Earthly justice. In summary, Lennox sounds almost as rhetorically smooth as Hitchens, but his arguments are somehow even less coherent.

The rebuttals are muddled and scattershot, but what else might one expect, given the lack of argument heretofore?

Overall, this debate elevates style over substance and rhetoric over logic. This is (alas) not terribly unusual in such debates, but this event really takes it to a whole new level. Both speakers manage to sound quite intelligent without ever making even one inductively or deductively valid argument. Good lord below, I’ve done my mind a disservice by slogging through this one.

Hitchens vs Richards at Stanford U.

Christopher Hitchens debated Jay Richards (video, audio) over the particular question of theism versus atheism, but they managed to stray far and wide during the course of the event.

As usual, Hitchens puts out a crazy salad of very well-worded emotional appeals, but doesn't bother to show how any of his arguments should lead one to conclude either materialism or deism. He leave the hard work of sorting out his facts into an argument with a conclusion to his listeners, which I suppose may be an acceptable mode of instruction at an institution such as Stanford. Nevertheless, I was (as always) far more impressed with his style than with his substance. Even when he alludes to a good argument (e.g. the problem of evil) he doesn't flesh out the deductive structure thereof.

Richards, by contrast, gives several facially valid arguments in rapid succession, and appeals to natural human intuitions (such as the intuition that moral statements are universally binding, or the intuition that everything that begins to exist has a cause, or the intuition that anthropic coincidences must imply design) to make his case both efficiently and effectively.

As usual, Hitchens recovers significantly during the Q & A, but he never comes close to countering the serene and methodological approach of his opponent, and his frustration (or lack of sobriety) shows through on a few occasions. It was a bit sad to watch, really. With the exception of the Hitchens/Craig debate, I've never seen the Hitch so thoroughly beaten.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars
Believer rating: 5 stars
Unbeliever rating: 2 stars

Monday, April 11, 2011

Harris vs Fraser in London

Sam Harris leads off with three reasons that people argue he is wrong about the (essentially utilitarian) nature of moral talk:

  1. At least some religions are true

  2. At least some religions are useful

  3. Atheism is unpleasant and corrupting

Harris rejects these contentions and goes on to present essentially the same opening statement as he did in his recent debate against W.L. Craig, making the case that the science of ethics is essentially a systematic study of how to maximize mental health, just as the science of medicine is essentially a systematic study of how to maximize physical health, and neither should be considered unscientific on account of the fact that both fields strive to maximize human well-being in an attempt to fulfill widely shared values.

Giles Fraser leads off with a bizarre and highly metaphysical critique of utilitarianism, bringing out the nasty old utility-monster from some dark corner of his mind. For some reason, Fraser considers this retort so effective that he doesn't really expound upon any other critique.

Harris and Fraser go back and forth on this a bit, and Harris basically concede that beings who are more richly capable of joy and suffering really should count for more than beings (e.g. cockroaches) who are less capable of such subjective experiences. I'm confused as to why Fraser thinks this is such a problem, unless he is suggesting that theism is basically the same as utility-monsterism. Perhaps this might yet be so, if the Campus Crusade for Cthulhu ever gets their way.

The debate goes downhill a bit from here, until Fraser and Harris get into it over the nature and utility of moral philosophy in general. On this point, Harris does three interesting things: he explains why he avoids the traditional modes of philosophical ethical talk, he clarifies that he does indeed consider himself a philosopher, and declares that he is willing to personally engage the traditional moral philosophers, even if he refuses to write books as they do.

Fraser's next serious challenge is about Harris' repeated use of the phrase "conscious creatures" but it falls fairly flat when Sam explains that he is simply making room for the possibilty of non-human suffering.

I've got to comment for just a second on the first question in the Q&A. This smarmy little bastard stands up and says "What is the scientific reason to care about the well being of conscious creatures?" I'm beginning to lean towards the notion that there is only one correct answer to this question, and it is to walk calmly over to the questioner, stop calmly just short of an arm's length away, and bitch-slap his ass into next week. After all, if he has the sheer cheek to seriously suggest that I should not be concerned about his subjective experience of suffering, why not just take him at his word? I've got to admit, though, that the answer given by Harris was more cogent and persuasive.

Overall, it was a good talk, but it was clear that Harris performs significantly better when up against a worthy opponent such as Craig than he does when facing, well, someone like Fraser.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Harris vs. Craig at Notre Dame

Last night I was well-filled with cheap pizza and pricey booze, and much like the Biblical character Boaz on the threshing floor, perhaps not in the best possible condition to make a dispassionate and rational assessment of the situation. With that caveat out of the way, I have to say that I thought Sam Harris pretty much held his own against William Lane Craig last night. I'll put up a more detailed review whenever I find an mp3 copy, but here are my first impressions for now.

Craig makes the argument that morality must be objective, not in the usual sense of the term, but rather in the sense of being universally binding upon all persons on account of what he calls a "Competent Authority" by which he means the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Here is the argument in deductive form:

1. Objective morality requires moral rules laid down by God.

2. Objective morality, in this sense, really does exist.

3. Therefore, God exists.

The argument is deductively valid, but both of the premises are evidently false. Craig's argument for the first premise is essentially that morality can only be understood as a set of rules laid down by an authority figure. He begs the question really hard here, but he does it with the flair of a showman and the conviction of a true believer. Craig's argument for the second premise relies on the audience not noticing when Craig makes the subtle shift from the almost universal moral outrage at the examples he provides to the idea the we cannot be properly outraged unless God is as well. Okay, well it doesn't sound at all subtle when I put it that way, but I promise he does is smoothly.

Harris, for his part, tries to make the case that we should not think of morality as binding rules handed down from above, but rather as a set of ideas derived from our best scientific understanding of how to bring about the flourishing (and avoid the suffering) of conscious and sentient creatures such as ourselves. He makes a strong analogy with the field of medicine and the idea of health versus illness. We assume that health is better for everyone, then we use science to derive ideas about how to get there, e.g. stop smoking, do your cardio, eat your vegetables, wear your rubbers, etc.

If you want a better sense of Harris' opening statement and basic arguments, you can have a look at this video or others like it, in which he stakes out his position and unpacks a sort of simplified utilitarianism for the 21st century.

During the rebuttals, I noticed that Craig retreated a bit further into philosopher mode, in which he seems to assume that everyone in the audience is taking an undergraduate degree in philosophy and can understand what he is saying even when he doesn't bother define his terms. Meanwhile, Harris stuck with plain language, powerful analogies, and memorable one liners. He also takes a direct shot or two at Catholicism at Notre Dame. He falls short just a bit, though, when he failed to make it perfectly clear that this debate ultimately consists of a sematical struggle over what it means to act morally. The entire debate can be summed up thusly:

WLC: Morality consists in following rules issued from above
SH: No, morality consists in helping people because we happen to like people.
WLC: No, no no, it is all about binding rules from a Competent Authority.
SH: There is no such Authority, and have your read those rules? They are God awful.

And so forth. Basically, it comes down to the question of whether we are morally motivated by fear of God or by the love of people, and I have trouble believing that anyone showed up to the debate truly agnostic on this issue, because one has to settle the question of whether any gods exist before you can really get on with the moral arguments. I agree with John Loftus that the best anyone can do against Craig is break even, but I have to give Sam Harris major props for very nearly doing so, especially on a topic like morality, where both our language and our intuitions are strongly biased towards a dualistic and theistic understanding.