Saturday, May 8, 2004

Barker & Carrier vs Rajabali & Corey in Dearborn, MI

As to this debate, the best piece of advice I can give you is to fast-forward to 15 minutes or so when the moderator finally starts talking, after all the reading and praying and chanting. At 18 minutes it, the moderator lays down a "No ridicule of Allah" rule, thus demonstrating a rather pinched and distinctly Islamic view of what constitutes open debate in a free society, not to mention a certain degree of monotheistic hypocrisy given the countless verses of Quranic abuse heaped upon the gods of the polytheists. Come to think of it, just fast-forward to around 22:30 when they finally get down to the debate itself. There, now never let it be said that I've never done you any favors.

Rajabali leads off, oddly enough, with several apologetical counterarguments against common atheist arguments, most particularly the argument from evil. His answer to the problem of evil is that life is a test for the sake of the hereafter, hence the obvious need for genocide and rape. He also argues that without an afterlife, injustice turns out to be truly unjust, even in the long run. Corey basically argues from apparent fine-tuning, paraphrasing the arguments from his book.

Barker leads off with the "graveyard of gods" and "one less god than you" argument, which I've never considered terribly impressive, at least not as formulated. It does give him a chance to make clear that the no ridicule rule applies only to Jehovah/Allah. He then points out that "gods or the gaps" thinking stops the advance of scientific discovery. He also runs a couple of incompatible properties arguments, which I think are generally underutilized in such forums. He goes on to point out that the fact that monotheists kill each other over alleged heresies makes it difficult for unbelievers to take any particular kind of monotheism seriously. He then runs a particularly devastating version of the argument from evil, calling God a bystander on 9/11 and an accomplice to mass murder.

Carrier provides, in his usual fashion, a fairly complete and compelling argument that blind mechanistic forces are the only things running the universe, and indeed the multiverse.
The rebuttals were substantively fairly predictable, with each side crying that the other side may some fundamental mistake or another. Entertainly, though, Rajabali sounds a bit like he is frothing at the mouth and about to kick off a riot. "Are you schismatic?!?" he shouts, in the tones of a witchfinder or inquisitor. I've got to say, this guy managed to live down to my expectations for Muslim dialogue, confirming several stereotypes which I'd prefer to have had disconfirmed.

Overall, the theists did a good job of presenting and defending the fine-tuning argument, while the nontheists did a fairly good job all around. For a more detailed breakdown of this debate, you might want to read Carrier's take.

Overall rating: 4
Believer rating: 3.25
Unbeleiver rating: 4.75

Monday, April 19, 2004

Carrier vs. Licona in Los Angeles, CA

Debate: the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

This debate started off as a bit of a joke, actually, with an hypothetical posed by historian John P. Meier which reads like one, “Suppose that a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an agnostic were locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library…and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was...” With this, Mike Licona proposes three major points which he believes would inevitably emerge in such a document:

  1. Death by crucifixion
  2. An empty tomb
  3. Disciples’ epiphanies

Licona makes the usual arguments in supporting each of these three points, arguments which will be quite familiar to readers of Bill Craig, Gary Habermas, and Ronald Nash. However, he also makes a few unduly extravagant claims in the course of proving up these three points, such as the claim that Jewish authorities in Jerusalem could have easily disproved early Christian kerygma by simply producing an identifiable corpse. This might work well for 21st century forensic crime scene investigators, but if one assumes that Jesus was severely beaten as depicted in, say, The Gospel According to Mel Gibson, then his body would have been fairly unrecognizable even before his death and inevitable decomposition. In any event, for this argument to work, one has to securely date the earliest preaching of the Christian kerygma to within a few weeks or months after Jesus death, at the outset. Licona does not even attempt to do this, though he implies it can be done.

Carrier paints a picture of rival mythmaking between Christian Gnostics and Sarcissists, each community seeking a way to preserve the message of Jesus which they had received, and each one creating new prophecies and myths to bolster their evolving theological frameworks.

  1. Paul contradicts the Gospels as to the nature of resurrection, whether in a body of spirit or a body of flesh
  2. Paul omits the post-mortem bodily appearances of Luke and John when describing the resurrection body
  3. Paul resurrection doctrine was an exchange of the old earthly body for a new heavenly one
  4. Amazing but true stories are rare, while amazing but false mythic tales are quite common
  5. Insufficient historical evidence to class Jesus’ resurrection in the “amazing but true” category
  6. The gospels bear the marks of legendary development and confabulation over time
  7. Objective supernatural encounters are far less common than subjective religious visions
  8. Paul’s personal epiphanies seem to fall squarely in the latter category rather than the former
  9. Jesus’ post-mortem appearances are corporeal only in Luke and John, indicating mythical development

Probably the most learned and interested argument made by Carrier was in support of point #5, in which he outlines five kinds of historical evidence and then uses them to compare two putative historical events: Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon and Jesus’ empty tomb. Carrier argues that the Rubicon crossing has strong evidence from each category, and concludes that whereas the evidence for Jesus’ empty tomb as “the very worst kind of evidence, a handful of late, biased, uncritical, unscholarly, unknown, secondhand witnesses – that is not good evidence. Even seen in the best possible light, the evidence available is simply not sufficient to establish that there was an empty tomb.”

Neither debater does quite a thorough job in pointing out the weaknesses in his opponent’s case, although that is fairly normal when the time constraints are setup so as to allow for far more time for opening arguments than either rebuttal or cross. All things considered, this debate is among the most substantive on this particular topic.

  • Unbeliever rating: 4.75 stars

  • Believer rating: 4.25 stars

  • Overall rating: 4.5 stars


Thursday, January 1, 2004

Dacey vs. Craig in West Lafayette, IN

The first Dacey/Craig debate hits many of the major strong points on both sides, and therefore is a good place to start if you are unfamiliar with the arguments usually given by theists and atheists in favor of their respective positions.

Common Sense Atheism provides an excellent overview of this debate:

Craig gives his usual arguments. Dacey responds with 5 facts that fit better with atheism than with theism: the hiddenness of God, the success of science, the mind-brain connection, evolution, and the abundance of pointless suffering. Craig says that it’spossible to fit all these with Christian theism.  * * * 

In general, Dacey does a better job of being clear and organized than most of Craig’s other opponents, but in the end Craig is still more organized and had good-sounding responses to Dacey’s arguments that Dacey didn’t get a chance to rebut.

That asute blogger also points out that more than once Dacey “chooses just about the weakest counter-argument he could have picked” which is why I found this debate ultimately disappointing, though both debaters started out quite strong in their opening statements.

Most disappointing of all was that Dacey more or less allows Craig to get away with a “retreat to the possible” in which Craig asserts that each of Dacey’s five facts might somehow be made to fit within a Christian worldview.  Of course, nearly anything logically fit within nearly any worldview, given enough flexibility in the fundamental premises.  God might be a really subtle fellow who prefers to remain inscrutable and indiscernible, with a fetish for the workings of natural law as a means of creating and sustaining intelligent life, and divine indifference to the mind bogglingly massive amounts of earthly suffering.  Craig suggests as much in his rebuttal to Dacey, and Dacey pretty much lets it slide.  This is particularly galling as Craig is not arguing for the god of deism (towards which many avowed atheists are actually agnostic) but rather the god of Christian theism, which is far more difficult to reconcile with Dacey’s list.

The crucial epistemic problem here is that metaphysical naturalism (the view that everything that exists is natural and operates naturally) strictly requires every one of Dacey’s five points to be true, whereas theism neither predicts nor requires any of them to be true.  If Dacey’s audience is convinced of his five points, they have to conclude that these facts are necessary to metaphysical naturalism, while they are merely compatible with deism and only arguably possible on Christian theism.  It doesn’t take a Bayesian mathematician to figure the odds here.

Altogether, I'd give this one 4 stars, 3.75 for Dacey and 4.25 for Craig.