Tuesday, September 23, 2008

McBay vs. Robertson in Edinburgh, Scotland

This debate (vimeo / mp3) suffered to some extent from a surfeit of cordiality and a dearth of substantive debate. Robertson referred to the arguments listed at the back of his book, but he never quite got around to really making them. Here they are:

1. Creation
2. Human mind
3. Moral law
4. Beauty
5. Religion
6. Experience
7. History
8. Church
9. Bible
10. Jesus

Any or all of these might well weigh in favor of a supernatural rather than a natural explanation, but I found it somewhat odd that he barely even alludes to the arguments which might be deployed to get one from, say, the historical Jesus to the veracity of Christian doctrine. They spend more time arguing about the propriety of the Sunday ferries. No, I’m not making this up.

The Q&A period was as lengthy and perhaps more informative than the debate itself, and I’d give the moderator top marks for moving it right along and calling out those who start into a monologue. All the questions save one went to the churchman, and at that point he was pressed to try to make an argument. Here it is - “If you don’t have an absolute morality, you have no morality.” Here is what that argument looks like, formalized:

1. Morality exists
2. If morality exists, it must be an absolute morality
3. If an absolute morality exists, it must exist in a transcendent mind
4. :. A transcendent mind exists in which morality subsists

Aside from the fact that “absolute morality” seems inherently contradictory (right action is always determined relative to the circumstances in which the moral actor finds herself) premises #2 and #3 are far from self-evident and no argument is given to support them.

This debate was really quite personable and enjoyable, but at the end of it all you’d be hard pressed to come up with an argument which was pressed for or against metaphysical naturalism. All told, I’d give it 3½ stars.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Hitchens vs. Albacete in New York City, NY

Christopher Hitchens and Lorenzo Albacete are polar opposites in more than one sense.  The former is an outspoken English atheist polemicist, the latter a soft-spoken Puerto-Rican priest.  Time and again, Hitchens tries to pick a fight, and every time the good monsignor turns the other cheek, or else feints to the left.  I found myself rooting for the priest, which is a very odd feeling for me.  All in all, it was a bizarre and surreal experience, and enjoyable if not terribly enlightening.

Here is a fairly fair account, and here is a vainly unfair one






Friday, September 19, 2008

Kagin vs Slick (CARM 2008)

Matt Slick gives his usual transcendental argument from God. It goes something like this:

The laws of logic exist independently of human minds
The laws of logic exist conceptually and transcendentally
You can't explain that! (without positing a transcendent mind)
:. God exists

I know, it sounds ridiculous, but this really is the argument on the table.

On first rebuttal, Slick disingenuously complains that Kagin did not use his opening statement as rebuttal time. Not only is it generally unnecessary (or even inappropriate) to rebut during one's opening, but in this particular case it is untrue to say that Kagin failed to do so. In fact, he said something like this: "How did we get the laws of logic? The same way we got the laws of arithmetic, the multiplication table, the alphabet ... people thought it up."

The laws of arithmetic are particularly salient here, because whichever culture and language gives rise to them, they pretty much have to turn out the same way if they are going to prove useful in modeling the real world. This doesn't prove, of course, that they are somehow transcendent, but merely that they have to be formulated in a certain way in order to yield results which are in accord with the material world.

Kagin also points out that the laws of logic have been modified over the centuries, a point which is especially true of emerging non-classical logical systems.

Slick's (p)rebuttal to Kagin's rebuttal is this: "Logic cannot be the product of human minds because human minds are different." By this reasoning, the laws of grammar, spelling, algebra, calculus, and any other set of linguistic conventions governing meaningful expression cannot be the product of human minds, because how could we possibly have come to agree on such things? Blue sleeps faster than Wednesday, indeed, Mr. Slick.

Despite basing his case for theism entirely on an argument which presumes that selected linguistic conventions transcend human minds, Slick manages to sound more persuasive than Kagin during this event, because Kagin does not focus his efforts on any particular argument but sort of meanders peripatetically around the familiar theism/nontheism conceptual landscape.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mac Donald vs. Novak in NYC, NY

This dialogue wasn’t so much a debate as a quasi-Socratic Q & A, but conservative scholar and author Heather Mac Donald would surely be a formidable debater in favor of freethought.  She asks clear, insightful, and incredibly pointed questions, but somehow manages to sound engaged and conversational rather than enraged and confrontational.  Basically, she is the anti-Hitchens.

Heather Mac Donald and Michael Novak have a bit of history online, such as here and here.  They met together in person to discuss Novak’s new book, but soon reverted to their longstanding and ongoing debate.  Mac Donald presses on the arguments from evil and unbelief, and Novak comes back with the idea that it would somehow be unfair for God to prevent tragedy.  Given the “Heavenly Father” metaphor, it is difficult to see how this might be so.  No one would fault a father for preventing his daughter from drowning in a flash-flood, and surely no one would say that he is thereby forcing his loving care upon his otherwise free-spirited little girl.

Possibly the highlight of this reel is about 16 minutes into the recording, when Mac Donald presses Novak about raising children with “respect for honesty” and “respect for others.” He asserts that “You do need a culture which instills those [values] and not all cultures do,” to which she replies, “Really?” in such a sweet voice that one has to wonder how she can manage to be so simultaneously incredulous and polite.  At this point, I actually started laughing out loud.

She went on to elaborate on various other issues, confounding Novak at almost every turn.  After watching a few too many W.L. Craig debates, it was a nice change of pace to see a freethinker who is confident and smooth, rather than befuddled and confused.  



Saturday, September 13, 2008

Rubens vs Tzortzis at East London University

Islam or Secular Liberalism
13 Sep 2008

Tom Rubens starts out by waffling on a bit about the nature of faith and science and their respective approaches to knowledge. Not exactly a barn-burner of an opening here, but he makes a few cogent points. He goes on to address the problem of moral certainty in the abscence of divine commands, and I dozed off for a bit (If you are brand new to freethought, you might nevertheless find this part interesting).

Hamza Tzortzis leads off by attempting to distinguish between religion (as generally understood) and the One True Faith of Islam. Where haev I seen this move before? He then goes on to make a fascinating case against much of what Europeans and especially Britons have stood for, such as free markets, capitalism, individualism, personal liberty, and such. He blames the capitalism of weathly nations for the poverty of the poor nations, and the liberalism of free nations for their endemic crime and addication rates. He goes on to describe a few of the indisputably negative outcomes of recent Western military engagements in the Arab world. Finally, he makes a positive (but entirely theoretical) case for implementing sharia law as a solution to our marco-economic problems. Humorously, he has to go all the way back to the 15th century to find an example of a Jewish rabbi bragging about the toleration of minority religions by their Mulsim neighbors. Oddly, he doesn't seem to see the irony in this, but he ups the irony a bit more when praising the properly restrained excercise of jihad.

I have to point out that Mr. Tzortzis fails to provide any modern examples of Islamic economics, law, justice, and jihad, so as to demonstrate empirically their superiority by comparing Mulsim nations to other nations which have adopted secular and liberal values, nations like Japan, Denmark, or Canada. Nevertheless, he closes by saying that we should avoid abstract ideas in favor of ideas which have a pratical effect. No, seriously. At this point, my irony meter blew several fuzes, and now I'm wondering whether this sort of debate is covered under the warranty.

Whether you are seeking a clash of ideas, or simply a few profound and original ideas, you can safely skip this debate.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hitchens vs. Turek in Richmond, VA

Christopher Hitchens/Frank Turek Debate on Vimeo.

Dr. Turek provides a handful of arguments, many of which are really the same argument stated with various degrees of cleverness and alliteration.  He sums up by saying that naturalists have to explain the following features of the universe:  

  1. How the universe arose from nothing
  2. How extreme fine-tuning and design arose from chaos
  3. How life arose from non-life
  4. How morality arose from materials
  5. How reason and logic arose from matter
  6. How mind arose from mud
  7. How maths arose from molecules
  8. How human freedom arose from blind forces
  9. How consciousness arose from chemicals
Of course, problems #4-9 are all really asking the same question, "How do minds arise from matter?" which is really just a subset of problem #3.  The answer, in a word, is evolution.   Unfathomably long ago, self-replicating molecules came about through natural processes which we do not yet understand, and eventually lead to the massive biodiversity which we observe on Earth via a process of evolution by descent with modification.  This answer is provisional inasmuch as we've little idea of how the first replicators originally arose, but this hypothesis nevertheless has vastly more explanatory scope and power than Turek's so-call explanation, an immaterial immeasurable magical mega-mind moving by means and methods most mysterious.

Turek's first two arguments are essentially borrowed from Dr. Craig, and I've addressed those elsewhere.  I should point out, though, that modern cosmologists have had quite little to say about the properties of nothingness.  If the good Dr. Turek things he has new insights about t=0, he should perhaps get published and put them all to shame.

Hitchens leads with a brief homage to Thomas Jefferson, and then (oddly enough) Peter Griffin. He goes on to point out that Turek's arguments prove deism at most and that Darwin made most of them rather toothless quite long ago.  This is the closest that Hitchens comes to refuting any affirmative arguments.  Turek could have bit on this bait and started arguing about the evidence for evolution, but quite wisely declines to do so.

The cross-ex was spirited if a but rude at times.  Worth watching for its entertainment value, but do not expect much in the way of insight.  What I found most frustrating about this part was Hitchens' refusal to directly address the myth of an objective morality.  Alas, one ought not expect incisive debate from a rhetorician.

As to Turek, I must say that for his first foray into public debate, he performed amazingly well. Dr. Craig should watch his back and start demanding royalties whenever other apologists crib his best arguments.