Friday, April 25, 2008

Singer vs. D'Souza in Los Angeles, CA

In this debate, both Peter Singer and Dinesh D'Souza lead with the argument that the other guy's ideology suffers from a problem of evil.  D'Souza argues that the godless communist regimes were quite horrifically murderous, while Singer's argument is basically that a Heavenly Father would never allow such atrocities to happen.  Neither of these interlocutors manages to quite directly rebut the arguments of the other, possibly because they were still making new arguments during their rebuttal segments.  Singer does manage a stinging reply noting that theistic ethics justified genocide and rape in the Old Testament, issues which D'Souza pretty much ignores.  They also go back and forth a bit on cosmology and fine-tuning, but not to any great effect from either side.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Kagin vs. Slick in Pensacola, FL

This debate (while downright abysmal in terms of substance) was a relief from the usual cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments.  Rev. Slick leads with a parable about a locked  room, and then goes into the details of his unusual argument that logical absolutes must exist in the absolute and transcendent mind of God.  This argument presumes that such statements as “a statement may not be both true and false at the same time in the same sense” do not follow from the meanings conventionally given by English-speaker to words like “true” and “false” but rather from some sort of ethereal other world in which truths exist apart from human minds.

Consider the statement “The Earth is a sphere.”  Is this true?  Well, it is true enough for pedagogical purposes, at least until around eighth grade or so.  The statement is not a perfect model of the actual planet, but it provides a useful approximation which works for most purposes.  What if all statements about the actual world are only true in the sense that they provide useful but approximate models of reality?  What then becomes of Slick’s absolutist model of truth and falsity?  I’d suppose it vanishes in a puff of logic, if logic might possibly puff.  In any event, it would seem that we are quite obviously dealing with linguistic conventions, which may be altered as occasion warrants.  Indeed, this has already been done by the practitioners of fuzzy logic, wherein a statement may be equally true and false. 

Edwin Kagin has a bit of a go at our own peculiar myths, but mostly he falls flat.  He does, however, manage to point out that logic (like any other linguistic / semantic construct) has been made up by human beings.  He goes on a bit about the yawning chasm gap between deism and theism, and point out that Slick has most of his work in front of him.

Slick pulls a bit of a dick move in his rebuttal, repeatedly faulting Kagin for his failure to rebut the transcendental argument during his own opening statement.  This is just plain weird, and reminds me of how Craig usually closes his opening statements by inviting his opponent to abandon the structure of debate in favor of giving an immediate rebuttal.  It would seem that the laws of logic are absolute, by the rules of structured debate are craggy and slick.

Overall rating: 2.0



Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Antony vs. Craig in Amherst, MA

In this debate Craig leads with the argument that it is impossible for there to be any objective moral truths apart from the (implicitly subjective) preferences of a creator deity and that morality cannot possibly arise in a primate species which exists merely as another branch in a vast tree of life.  He does not show how this follows from any particular view of biology or meta-ethics, but merely assumes that morality must be rooted in a stern and powerful father-figure who threatens punishment for sin and promises rewards for righteousness.  One might suppose that the catchy verse enjoining us to “be good for goodness sake” never made much of a mark on his intellect and conscience.

Craig closes with three challenges to his opponent:

  • Explain the basis of objective moral values
  • Explain the source of objective moral duties
  • Explain how ultimate moral accountability exists

Antony rightly ignores Craig’s challenge during her opening statement, and goes on to elucidate the idea that objective truths about the suffering of sentient beings should be all the facts we need to necessitate moral action.  I did not find her arguments convincing as to the existence of objective moral facts, but certainly they were no worse than equating the naked fear of divine wrath (however arbitrary) with moral absolutes.   Antony lucidly lays out and roundly rejects the idea that moral action must involve submission to a higher power, and recounts the Euthyphro dilemma to the audience in clear terms.  She provides some background on what moral action should be taken to mean and makes the case that only the moral agent who is uncertain of eternal rewards or punishments may indeed be perfectly pious, doing good for the sake of goodness alone.  By the time both opening statements were finished, I was cautiously optimistic that Craig had finally met his equal in a public forum.

In the rebuttal period, Craig chastised his opponent for failing to use her opening statement as a rebuttal period in which to address his three challenges which he made at the end of his opening.  This is a standard Craig debating tactic, which he pulls on most of his opponents, e.g. “…he must first tear down my five arguments, then erect a case for naturalism in their place.”  Presumably Craig does this not because he is unaware of the ground rules of any given debate (he is far too experienced for that) but merely as an attempt frustrate and fluster his opponent with a quick below-the-belt jab.  This tactic doesn’t seem to work particularly well on Antony, who seems quite unflustered as she expertly dismantled most of Craig arguments, pointing out exactly where and how he went awry.

In Craig’s counter-rebuttals he asserts that his opponent had not addressed his arguments (as he always does) but for once his words ring hollow.  They go back and forth for awhile, Antony reasserting that moral action is that which objectively alleviates suffering of any sentient creature, Craig reasserting that moral action can only be defined in terms of obedience to the commands of a Grandly Objective Deity.  They also go back and forth on the Euthyphro for a bit, and Craig tried to sound authoritative as he argued that we can avoid either horn of the dilemma by positing goodness as inherent to God’s character.  Of course, this merely gives rise to a slightly different dilemma, “Is God inherently good because he always desires good things, or does God’s desire for good things make him inherently good?” 


The overall theme of the debate was that naturalists may well identify actions which are objectively good in the sense that they are rooted in objective facts about the world, such as desires thwarted or fulfilled, while supernaturalists have the blessing of being permanently retarded in their moral development, always and ever looking upward like wee toddlers for their moral advice, rewards, and punishments.  Having sustained the argument that only the moral values of a fatherly deity should count, a theist may go on to link those desires to our own individual desires by invoking promises of divine retribution and reward, thus executing a complexly paradoxical philosophical pirouette which allows for one to smuggle the central tenets of ethical egoism into the heart of divine command theory.  I’ve heard something sort of like this at least once before, “If you kiss Hank's ass, He'll give you a million dollars; and if you don't, He'll kick the shit out of you.”