Monday, November 30, 2009

Prothero & Shermer vs Meyer & Sternberg in Beverly Hills

Shemer argues that we should reframe the ID/evolution debate from a scientific debate to a skirmish in the culture wars. He does a fairly good job of backing this up, but he is also careful not to commit the genetic fallacy and thereby conclude that his opponents arguments must be faulty because they have an vested ideological interest in fitting the data into a certain model. He also provides a couple of affirmative arguments for evolutionary theory.

Prothero characterizes the central argument from ID something like this:

  1. There are only two explanations for functional complexity: Evolution or intelligent design
  2. We found something functionally complex and we cannot imagine how it evolved naturally
  3. Therefore, it didn't evolve naturally (via argument from personal incredulity)
  4. Therefore, it must have been intelligently designed

He also does a fair bit of prebuttal, briefly addressing some of the common arguments for ID and alludes to arguments for evolutionarily driven abiogenesis.

Meyer starts off by attempting to reframe the debate, he desires not to discuss intelligent design theory, but only to address the question of whether neo-Darwinian theory (including natural selection acting on mutation-induced variations) adequately accounts for the observed pace of evolutionary change. He argues that the trilobite eyes, for example, arose too quickly (a few million years) to be explained by selection acting upon variation.

Sternberg expands on the argument from not enough millions of years, going on at some length about the number of morphological changes necessary to convert land mammals into cetaceans. He then asks “Was there enough mutational grist for the mill of natural selection?” He then does a few maths, waves his hands, and concludes that the answer must be in the negative. All in all this was a very solid presentation, but we cannot evaluate it without seeing the formulae themselves and (damn it) I only have an audio copy of the debate. Perhaps Sternberg published his results somewhere?

Meyer retakes stage and does the maths-heavy hand-waving about functional proteins, apparently assuming that proteins are created from scratch molecule-by-molecule via a uniform random process. It is hard to tell though, since he doesn’t show his work. My maths profs would have flunked him on this part. He does manage to sound smart, though, using hardcore jargon such as “combinatorial sequence space.” Maybe he is hoping to impress the nerdy girls.

Oddly enough, between Meyer and Sternberg I did not hear any arguments about the debate topic, that is, the “adequacy of Neo-Darwinian natural selection and mutation to explain the origin of life.” Perhaps they thought it was supposed to be about the biological origins of aquatic mammals in particular, though it is unclear how they could have made such a mistake.

The rebuttal periods get a bit haphazard, and here I'd like to pseudo-randomly quote from Margaret Atwood, “The chaos smells very bad.” Somewhat surprisingly (to me) the ID guys manage to hold their ground here, but only by first conceding a massive amount of ground to the evolutionists (ancient earth, speciation via by natural selection acting upon mutational variation, etc.) and staunchly defending the notion that one can squeeze God into the very tiny conceptual gap between plenty of mutations not nearly enough mutations. I mean, really, if that is all God has to do was toss in a lucky mutation every so often, why not give Him just a bit less credit? That is so weak tea, it makes Episcopalianism look like an uncompromising theological juggernaut by comparison.

Overall, though, I'd recommend this debate because it is one of the few in which I've heard cdesign proponentists intelligent design advocates giving nuanced arguments which clearly stake out a position between ordinary creationism and scientific theories.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dawkins & Grayling vs. Harries & Moore on whether Atheism is the new Fundamentalism

Talk about an all-star cast. This debate featured Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling, Richard Harries, and Charles Moore. Ok, so it's a 3/4 star cast, but still, that's a good panel.

Harries starts off for some reason by praising a certain flavor of atheism, one which in all my years of atheist activism I've yet to encounter in an actual living person, namely, the sort of nihilistic amoral atheism featured in works of fiction such as The Brothers Karamazov. Presumably, he does this so as to get the audience to think of unbelief as necessarily nihilistic and amoral. It is particularly ironic, then, when just a few moments later he criticizes atheists for "picking on the weakest points" of their opponents arguments. He closes by saying that the new atheism is too focused on an activist and interventionist god, unlike the god of the Anglicans who presumably hangs back and allows Engilshmen to run roughshod over indigeouns peoples in all corners of the globe. Okay, I'm paraphrasing just a bit on that last point.

Grayling leads off by noting that the new atheism came about in reaction to the rise of militant theism, both in terms of physical terrorist attacks and vituperative verbal attacks. He goes on to note that "atheist," like "afaeryist" or "apixieist" seems to load the dice by negating a particular view. He then makes an affirmative argument for secularism, which is essentially the view that religious groups should be given the same priviledges as other volutary organizations, no more or less. He closes with the absurdity of fundamentalist non-stamp-collecting, or fundamentalist non-doing-anything.

Moore leads off with a few harsh (dis)analogies, and goes on to draw a comparison between Iran's fundamentalism and that of Soviet Russia. I think this is an apt comparison, given the emphasis on conformity and thoughtcrime under both regimes, but it seems odd to compare either regime to the secular humanists there on the stage, all of whom line up firmly behind liberal democratic ideals such as religious tolerance and personal liberty.

Dawkins leads by doing what no one else has taken the opportunity to do yet in this debate: defining the terms of debate. Very good move, if you ask me. He characterizes fundamentalism in terms of two criteria: Authoritative scriptures and extremist actions. On both points, he points out the "new atheism" (for which he is a prominent spokesman) is clearly sorely lacking. The rest of his speech is similarly to the point and devastating.

While the IQ2 debates are typically lacking in rebuttals and cross-ex, they have one very useful feature, that is, polling the audience before and after. After the effective speeches of Grayling and Dawkins, I was not at all surprised to find that the audience was moved against the motion "Atheism is the new Fundamentalism" and presumably towards a more tolerant view of unbelief.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Ehrman vs. D’Souza at UNC

I purchased this debate so that you will never have to do so. Seriously, don't bother, there are far better debates available entirely for free online, many of which include video.

Ehman does a fine job of unpacking the problem of suffering, just as he has done in plenty of other debates. D'Souza, to his credit, dose a fine job of muddling the issues by bringing in a few facially plausible analogies to childrearing and parenting, along with the bizarre idea that a decent respect for human free will obliges one to stand back and allow rapists and murderers to act as they will. He makes it sound better than that, of course.

The rebuttal period was lamentably short, such that no one really digs into the problems of whether the free-will defense is soundly grounded upon facts about the world, although Ehrman runs a clever rebuttal based on the putative nature of the Christian afterlife. Moreover, the soul-building theodicy is put forth but never really examined. There just wasn't enough time to do so.

Overall, both speakers do a decent job, given severe time constraints, but they never really get beyond the first level arguments and hinting at a few possible theodicies. Best take a pass on this one and find another one of Ehrman's several debates on this topic.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Barker vs. D'Souza in Plano, TX

Both debaters give pretty standard arguments here, fine-tuning and first-cause from D'Souza, and prebuttal attempts at scientific and philosophical rigor from Barker. For example, if we have a gap in scientific knowledge, it is okay to fill that gap with the God of Abraham? They also dwell a bit on the historical problem of how to evaluate and accept the Jesus narratives. The back-and-forth between the two speakers after the rebuttals was particularly muddled, because Dan less articulate but more up-to-date on the science, while Dinesh articulately expresses outdated cosmological ideas.

It's a good introduction to these ideas, but I've seen both men do better than this on other occasions. This one is not particularly worth watching, unless you've never seen these guys in action before.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Dennett, Harris, Hitchens vs. Boteach, D'Souza, Taleb

I don't usually outsource my reviews to other (better) bloggers than myself, but I'll make an exception in this case and direct you to PZ's review of this debate. I have very little to add to that review, except to contest the idea that Hitchens successfully "[r]efutes the fine-tuning argument" and to say that I found Robert Wright's perspective refreshingly novel rather than muddled. I'd argue (presumably contrary to PZ) that we need more agnosticism and deism in God debates.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ayala vs. Craig at Indiana University

Luckily enough, I spent a memorable fraction of my early childhood in my Puerto Rican grandparent’s home, which means that I’m somewhat used to hearing English spoken with a strong Spanish accent. That said, I’m guessing that many people will find Dr. Ayala hard to follow on account of his accent, and that despite the relatively high quality of the audio recording.

Ayala leads off by drawing a distinction between designed artifacts and non-designed objects. He notes that organisms were left out of the original scientific revolution (which posited that the rules of nature are universal) because of the kind of thinking put forth by Paley and other intelligent design theorists. Ayala claims that Darwin’s great advance was to show how purposeful complexity may arise naturally, thus bringing life finally within the penumbra of a scientific revolution which had begun much earlier. He goes on to adduce several common evidences of evolution by natural selection operating over geological time. Ayala believes (as I do) that the most convincing evidence for common descent is that we find from a branch of sciences unavailable to Darwin’s contemporaries, that is, the evidence of molecular biology.

Craig leads off by defining intelligent design as a set of theories for inferring design from evidence. He briefly alludes to Bill Dembski’s argument from highly improbable complex patterns, and argues that the inference to design is justified on those grounds alone. Craig does not contest common descent (for which Ayala had argued) focuses his efforts entirely on the mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection. He makes an interesting argument that studies of the HIV genotype over a couple decades can give us any idea of what mutation is capable of producing over a time span very many orders of magnitude longer. He also argues that evolutionists must show definitively that mutation plus natural selection is powerful enough to get everything done in only a few billion years.

Ayala, on rebuttal, seems at first to ignore Craig’s opening statement, but he is actually trying to give an example of the power of mutation and selection in practice. He refers to a test tube experiment in which low-probability mutations can be made to take over an entire tube merely by changing the environment in which the bacteria breed. He then goes on to reiterate some of the evidence for common descent.

Craig picks apart Ayala’s opening statement and rebuttal, quote-mining from various fringe scientists to show that mutation plus selection doesn’t drive the creation of new biological mechanisms in under a hundred years or two. Funnily enough, Craig accuses his opponent of undue extrapolation, even as he stretches timelines from 10^2 to 10^9 in attempt to show that Darwinian mechanisms just cannot get the job done in the time available. Craig seems to conclude that while the universe is impressively fine-tuned for intelligent life, it is not fine-tuned enough to expect intelligent life to arise more than once.

Overall impressions
This debate demonstrates amply that expertise in public debating and debate prep can overcome expertise in the topic under debate. Ayala clearly knows more about the subject matter, but he seems overwhelmed by Craig's relentless focus on the problem of how often mutations arise within a given population. I'd be interested in hearing a debate focused on that paritcular issue, but to my knowledge that's never been done.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Barker vs. Deen at King's College London

Adam Deen eloquently argues that if people are merely made of matter, then human moral concepts and moral feelings are utterly worthless, because there is no one up in the sky to obey and obedience to authority is self-eivdently the only sort of morality worth having. He stretches this single point out for quite a while, delving into various ideas such as moral subjectivism, accountability, personal taste, and metaphysical determinism. He appeals to several common intuitions for which he provides no evidence whatsoever, such as the idea of libertarian free will. When it all comes down to it, he is essentially yearning aloud to be liberated from the onerous task of moral reasoning by finding Someone to whom to fully submit himself. Incidentally, Mr. Deen is a Muslim, which means "one who submits."

Barker argues that moral feelings are inherent to most people and that we should work to help people not because we value obedience but because we value people themselves.

Overall, it was a satisfactory debate, but I would have greatly appreciated any attempts to drills down into the various motivations for moral action and what they imply for the competing theories of morality.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Lewis vs. Tzortzis on cosmology and fine-tuning

Tzortzis starts off with a slight variation on the Kalam cosmological argument, arguing to a timeless, immaterial and personal cause (just as WLC does). He then goes on the the argument from a cosmos finely-tuned for life, and provides a reasonably good presentation thereof. As is usual in such arguments, he rules out chance fine-tuning on the implicit assumption that our universe is the only one.

Lewis takes several minutes of dithering (he is a philosopher after all) before really getting into this arguments, which are essentially rebuttals rather than affirmative arguments for either atheism or agnosticism. With respect to the cosmological argument, he tries to show that the idea of a first cause is incoherent in a closed bubble of finite space-time. Respecting the second argument, he tries to show that basically 'luck happens' to at some places and time, especially given the possibility of an incomprehensibly vast multiverse. He also points out that certain solutions to the problem of evil lead to profound agnosticism regarding the nature of the divine.

Okay, now I just have to say this. Tzortzis boldly and confidently puts forth fundamentally fallacious arguments rooted in premises which are highly intuitively appealing but evidentially bankrupt. Lewis, by contrast, timidly and hesitantly presents philosophically sound rebuttals, in a way which makes them sound weak and timid. When it comes to in-person debates, the personas involved the debate really matter, and I've no doubt that the audience came away believing that Tzortzis wiped the floor with Lewis.

Overall rating: 3.5
Believer rating: 2.5
Unbeliever rating: 4.5

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Underdown vs Berlinski in Beverly Hills

This event wasn't a debate so much as one lecture followed by another one.

Berlinkski takes at least twenty minutes to get around to something like an argument, but he speaks well and tells a good story about magical thinking and scientific progress. He isn't arguing for theism, he is arguing for the legitimacy of the inference to design, both in biology and cosmology. His argument is essentially this: If we cannot yet explain something scientifically, such as the initial conditions of the universe, or the very first living things, or the world of mathematical abstractions, then it may be rational to infer that there is indeed mind behind the universe. To paraphrase Stephen Colbert paraphrasing Bill O'Reilly, "God exists, because I don't know how stuff works."

Underdown points out the difficult of putting God into gaps, namely, that the gaps keep closing and new ones keep opening up. If God lives in episemtic gaps, he surely skips about quite a bit. He also tries to put science (as a field) into historical perspective, and replies to a few more of Berlinksi's points

Monday, October 19, 2009

Hitchens & Fry vs. Onaiyekan & Widdecombe

This debate was produced by the folks at intelligence squared and aired on the BBC, so you know it has fabulous production values as well as a sharply focused topic question, which was this: "Is the Catholic Church a force of good in the world?"

Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan goes first, and basically cites to the medical and missionary services which are provided in the name of the Catholic Church. He gleefully ignores all of the evils done in the name of the church, as if it never happened.

Hitch picks up the ball and runs with it, giving us a sense of just how many lives were ruined by the Crusades, Inquisition, systemic misogyny, forced conversion of indigenous peoples, silent complicity in the Holocaust, rape and torture of children in Ireland, the UK and US. He then drops the f(aggot)-bomb in allusion to the church's institutionalized homophobia. I'm not generally a fan of Hitchens, because I prefer carefully structured logic to explosive rhetoric, but even I couldn't help cheering him on in his well-presented litany of sins both venial and mortal.

British politician Anne Widdecombe is up next, and she decries all of Hitch's accusations as mischaracterizations. She also does a good job of enumerating some of the charitable things that the church has done to move first-world resources into third world nations.

Fry leads off with a kindly distinction between those moral individuals who pursue Catholicism on the one hand and the institutions and doctrines on the other. He then cites to (recently sainted) Thomas Moore's torturing and burning of those who owned English Bibles, and segues smoothly to a litany of moral evils, including the demonization of gays like himself and the lies about condoms which have demonstrably increased the spread of fatal diseases. Even though he is sharing the stage with Hitchens, Fry gets in the best line of the evening, "The only people who are obsessed with food are anorexics and the morbidly obese, and that, in erotic terms, is the Catholic Church in a nutshell."

Overall, this was a fantastic show, and even though no one put forth a rigorous argument with conclusions following from premises or attempted anything resembling a utilitarian calculus of goods minus evils, it was nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable and I commend it to your viewing.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Lewis vs. Tzortzis in the UK

Hamza Andreas Tzortzis has clearly watched William Lane Craig and adopted his most effective arguments, that is, those which atheists have had the most trouble refuting on stage (as opposed to in print). He does an excellent job of presenting a Kalam Cosmological argument and a variation on the fine-tuning argument.

Richard Lewis makes the typical rookie mistake of going into rebuttal mode right off the bat, instead of giving his own affirmative arguments for metaphysical naturalism. Minus several style and effectiveness points for that. He does get around eventually to the problem of evil, but he even approaches that as if rebutting theodicies instead of outlining the argument in a positive way. Also, I must say that a few his rebuttals are indeed logically cogent, thought they are neither presented in their strongest form nor with a sense of personal confidence.

Instead of having designated rebuttal periods, they go straight into questions, which might explain why Lewis could not resist the opportunity to rebut during his opening time. Alas, adopting this format loads the dice even more heavily against Rick Lewis, on account of the highly devout audience.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars

Believer rating: 4.5 stars

Unbeliever rating: 2.5 stars

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wolpert vs. Cowburn in London

Wolpert makes the case that religious faith is a natural outgrowth of human psychology, such as agency detection and causal attribution. He even goes so far as to claim that mystical thinking was itself advantageous in the infancy of our species. He has to restrain himself when speaking of Papal ethics, which I find perfectly understandable.

Cowburn leads off with both his scientific and Christian bona fides, claiming to believe wholeheartedly in both of these frameworks for understanding the world. He claims that science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. Personally, I'm somewhat sympathetic to this view. If God is above and beyond and behind all natural laws, you should not be able to use those laws to suss Him out. He goes on to enumerate a few outstanding abuses of science (involving the naturalistic fallacy) and tries to erect a conceptual wall of separation between the spires of Christian churches and ivory towers of scientific academia.

Wolpert comes back at Cowburn with a demand for some evidence or argument for the existence of God, and for evidence of the human soul and other such Biblical claims.

Cowburn rejects Biblical literalism on theological grounds, and completely avoids the question of souls because Wolpert had phrased it badly (inaptly using the term ‘reincarnation’) and goes on to praise science for a bit. He alludes to the first-cause and fine-tuning arguments as hints of the divine, and finally goes on to preach the gospel of Jesus using the high Christology of John. For some bizarre reason he calls this story a "pinch-point experiment" which can allow us to determine the deepest truths about life. Perhaps this was truly so, for those few women who first encountered the risen Jesus in the flesh, but for the rest of us, though, the gospels are hearsay piled upon hearsay, passed along orally for decades before being put to paper by authors who neither named themselves nor their sources.

Overall, this was not a particularly enlightening debate, and that despite both men managing to sound fairly intelligent and articulate. I wish that they had picked something narrower to dig in and really debate about.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Shook vs Geivett at CFI NY

Theist vs. atheist debates usually provide the theist with a home field advantage, but this debate took place at the Center for Inquiry (video, audio) and so for once the theist is on playing for the away team.

Doug Geivett leads with the usual arguments from first-cause, fine-tuning, and human morality. He does a fairly decent job in his presentation, and that despite not being one of the regulars on the apologetic speech and debate circuit. John Shook addresses several of these same issues in his opening, arguing that the evidence on these matters leads to agnosticism at worst and metaphysical naturalism at best. He also does a fairly good job in his opening presentation, although he spends too much time rebutting and not nearly enough time making affirmative arguments that nature is most likely all that really exists.

Things get a bit weird on rebuttal and cross, as each speaker insists that the other one failed to address his own arguments and tries to shift the burden of proof back on to the other guy. I wish they had drilled down a bit more on the nature of causation or morality, because that would have helped to resolve the seemingly irresolvable duel of opposite intuitions into which such debates most usually plunge.

Here is a more detailed review. I disagree somewhat with Luke's statement that they did not directly address each other's points, since Luke pointed several instances in which they did precisely that.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Williamson vs. Craig at University of Saskatchewan

Craig leads off with his usual arguments from first-cause, fine-tuning, objective moral values, minimal historical facts argument for Jesus resurrection, and the non-argument from subjective religious experiences.

Interestingly, Craig dismisses the world ensemble theory by claiming that he knows exactly what our universe (of all the universes) should look like if the ensemble existed. Perhaps he should publish in journals of cosmology rather than apologetics, if he indeed he has so greatly outstripped the finest minds working in theoretical physics.

By "objective moral values" Craig evidently means moral values which are universally binding upon all moral agents on account of having been laid down by an immaterial atemporal nonspatial transcendent cosmic supermind. Seems to me he is question-begging a bit by building this in as a premise to his argument from moral values.

Williamson starts off rather weakly, avoiding any positive arguments from the truth of metaphysical naturalism, and instead brewing us some weak tea on the burden of proof and the nature of unbelief. He thereby wastes at least a third of his opening statement time before finally getting around to arguments from incoherence and a version of the argument from evil. His presentation of the arguments from incoherence is not particularly strong, and his argument from evil isn't fleshed out. Also, he completely muffs the closing of his opening.

During rebuttal, Craig systematically dismantles Williamson's arguments, although Craig's ideas of nonspatiality/atemporality/immateriality amount to little more than hand waving, since he does not even attempt to show that these attributes can be coherently applied to a mind. Williamson's rebuttal is nearly as ineffective as Craig's was effective, mostly because Williamson rambles on various topics while more or less failing to directly address any of Craig's arguments until he pretty much runs out out of time. At this point, those of us hoping for a robustly two-sided debate start looking for the concession stands.

Seriously, where does Craig keep finding these guys? College profs, please realize that a career spent lecturing to undergrads, however good you may be at it, does not at all prepare you to debate someone who is experienced at the art of public debate.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars
Believer rating: 4.5 stars
Unbeliever rating: 2.5 stars

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Turner vs. Robertson and Morgan on the radio (UK)

David Robertson is such a blisteringly arrogant prick. He is talks for less than sixty seconds before dropping the Stalin and Hitler bombs and accusing secularists of being crazed utopian fundamentalists who will inevitably take society to hell given half a chance. Ed Turner counters that it is folly to link any sort of totalitarianism (religious or irreligious) with the liberal secular humanism advocated by secularists in Britain. This leads to a lengthy tangent on the nature of morality, in which the theists argue that there is no point being moral for the sake of other people, only for the sake of pleasing God. Indeed, they seem to say that morality cannot be understood except as a set of supernaturally ordained rules.

Robertson's lack of historical perspective is glaring throughout the show. At one point he actually claims that the ideals of "democracy and concepts of tolerance and free speech stem from Christian theology and philosophy" which seems to ignore the one and a half milennia between the ascendency of Christian ideas and the rise of modern liberalism which Robertson praises. He also conflates modern liberal secularism (which depends upon freedom of speech and religion) with the great totalitarian regimes fueled by Stalinism, Maoism, Kimism, and the like. Can these be any more different?

Morgan is an interesting figure, making a case that cultural secularization has ruined France, causing the France to turn to anti-depressants, wine, and the like. Not very persuasive, but it's a different angle on things.

I've got to give Ed Turner credit for keeping up with several Christians, all of whom are hoping to see him falter and fail. He really did his homework prior to the show, especially repecting Robertson's worldview and arguments.

The topic question for this episode was supposed to have been whether Europe would be better off Christian or Atheist. Oddly, no one took the oppotunity to graph out some quantative indicators of societal health (e.g. infant morality rates) along with self-reported religiousity measures (e.g. church attendance) in Europe over time. Doing so would have been quite instructive.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Hitchens vs. D'Souza in Orlando, FL

Yet another debate between Hitchens and D'Souza, in which both debaters attempt to pump the intuitions of the audience as much as possible without making anything resembling a rigorous argument. They each deploy their usual rhetoric, Hitchens appealing to the human desire for liberty from tyranny, while D'Souza appeals primarily to the human desire for paternal love and blessing.

Here is an example of the sort of "argument" you get in this debate: Christianity is unique in claiming that God came down to Man, while all other religions are merely ways for Man to come to God. One might suppose D'Souza doesn't go in much for comparative mythology.

Here's another one: The sun will go out and the universe end in heat death, therefore it is clear that God did not design either the solar system or the universe. Bill Craig would take all of 30 seconds to dismantle this one, as indeed he did upon another occasion.

I've often wondered why popular debaters continue to use the same exact arguments over and over despite having been strongly rebutted either on paper or in person. I am supposing it is because they are more concerned with scoring points right then and there than they are with intellectual consistency in the long term.

I'm also discontent with the format of this debate, which is to give each speaker very short segments on specific topics. I'd much prefer more time for development of an argumentative framework upfront, and more discretion to the speakers on how to do so.

Overall, I'd not recommend this one, since each of these men have performed significantly better on other occasions.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Crossley vs Bauckham on the radio (UK)

[Part 1] [Part 2]

Bauckham essentially makes the case that Mark was indeed the translator and transcriber of the eyewitness Peter, and that the gospel of John was indeed authored by the disciple John. I'm unclear on why people might think these arguments are in any sense novel, but then I've not yet read the book.

Crossley puts up a weak defense of the cricitcal scholarly consensus regarding these sources, which is essentially that they were associated with particular names of disciples long after they had been in circulation and use within the churches. He fails, for example, to press the question of how Peter could have forgotten the amazingly high Christology of Jesus himself along with several amazing miracles when recounting the his eyewitness tale to John Mark. This discussion could certainly have used a detailed drill down on the differences between John and Peter's allegedly eyewitness stories.

Overall, Bauckham talks so much and Crossley fails so hard in his role as challenger of Bauckham's approach that the radio host has to step in to ask harder questions. These eps are essentially useless as debate.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Duke vs. Price on the radio (UK)

In this episode of Unbelievable Christian Tom Price (of the OCCA) and atheist Barry Duke (of The Freethinker) discuss the question "Does religion make people unhappy?" which could well be an interesting issue to address using statistical data from international surveys. Alas, no such data are presented, evaluated, or even discussed.

The discussion goes back and forth on the various ways that religion might make people suffer or thrive, oftentimes leaning heavily on anecdotes of individual experiences. To quote the host "We've taken two points of view, and traded stories on them today." This approach proves entertaining, but not particular enlightening or persuasive.

Moreover, both speakers have some difficulty avoiding the inevitable meta-question, which is whether any particular religion actually provides an accurate description of the world. Because this problem transcends the question under debate, it seems to me that this debate might have been more fruitful had it been conducted by two unbelievers, with one of them arguing that religion may be instrumentally valuable in providing needed social goods even though it is false.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ronald Numbers vs Paul Nelson on BHTV

An historian of science and creationist pseudo-scientist walk into a dialog. Cordial and informative chat ensues. Mostly they talk about how to approach finding the truth rather than what we should think is true, which is a bit too meta for my tastes. I'm more interested in arguing for or against metaphysical naturalism than hearing arguments about methodological naturalism versus fideism. Nevertheless, I've got to credit both speakers for being gentlemanly and seemingly well-informed.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Thunderf00t vs. Comfort

Seriously, now, who the f*ck is this guy? I mean the guy on the left. Who is he, really? He is obviously intelligent and well-read and well-spoken, but I've no idea who he really is. I assume he is a grad student in biochem or something like that.

At any rate, this debate outright sucked as far as debates go, but totally rocked for sheer entertainment value. The preacher guy kept changing the subject and making seemingly random off-topic assertions (possibly engaging his magical powers of metaphyically libertarian free will) while the other guy kept trying to get him to back up, calm down, and carefully examine the meaning of his words. It was sort of like a philosophical comedy routine dialog, with a wacky clown playing off a straight guy. Worth watching while sharing a bong and a laugh, but don't expect too much depth.

Overall rating: 2.5
Believer rating: 1.0
Unbeliever rating: 4.0

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Hearty vs Williams on the radio (UK)

In this episode of Unbelievable, Peter S. Williams debates Peter Hearty on the subject of intelligent design. The first quarter hour or so provides a reasonably accurate and concise summary of the ideas usually put forth by cdesign proponentsists intelligent design theorists. Hearty counters at first by reducing ID down to its core, saying that you cannot so blithely make the jump from "we don't know how this happened" to "God must have done it." I'm afraid, however, that Behe's core argument is never fully outlined and analysed here, as has been well done elsewhere. They get down into the weeds pretty quickly, but are often sidetracked by phone calls and e-mails which generally don't help them dig into the core of the argument. There are a couple exceptions, notably the caller from around one half hour into the show. There is also a doozy of a call in almost an hour into the show which makes me feel just a bit better about being American instead of British. She says that the show needs a Ken Ham to keep things balanced, since both debaters are old-Earthers who accept common descent. That actually sounds like a fun idea for a reality show. A young earth creationist, an intelligent design theorist, and a scientist walk into a studio... At any rate, it was a decent conversation. They manage to cover a good deal of ground and provide the listener with a pretty good sense of the scope and depth of intelligent design theory. This one is worth hearing.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Myers vs Alexander on the radio (UK)

First off, I cannot believe that this episode turned out to be the most downloaded of the entire show run, as it is not a particularly shining example of the show. Usually, it is both more informative and more like a debate in which the guests go back and forth trying to prove or disprove some particular proposition. From the get go, the presenter is clearly struggling to provoke PZ into saying something provocative. Thereafter, Alexander keeps trying to drag Myers off the subject of science generally and biology in particular, while PZ repeatedly call him out on it, continually dragging the conversation back to scientific means and methods. Around 42 minutes in, the interlocutors finally get into something like a geniune disagreement, but not for very long. Overall, the discussion was too meandering and random. Both men sounded intelligent and well spoken, but neither one did not came out strongly for or against any particular position or built a case for their position. They both agree on some crucial points, such as whether theology has any place in the laboratory, and how people arose biologically, among other things.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Cave vs Robertson at Gunnersbury Baptist (UK)
(Scroll down to 13 June 2009)

Peter Cave characterizes humanism as he sees it and tries to give us reasons to believe that life isn't completely pointless even in the absence of a supervening intelligence who ultimately controls all events and severely punishes every soul who doesn’t precisely follow his plans, whatever they may be.

David Robertson, for his part, colours humanism in several and various ways, and somehow manages to mischaracterize someone or some idea at each and every point, but he does this quite smoothly and confidently. He also pulls out the Atheism = Maoism/Stalinism/Kimism idea, an old canard one which invariably triggers my gag reflex. He tops this absurdity by calling the Scandinavian nations thoroughly Christian, despite their noteworthy competitiveness for the title of most godless and secular nations on the planet, at least according to the professional demographers of religion.

They then go back and forth for awhile, in a friendly and lighthearted manner, using a direct cross-examination format (my personal favorite). Cave asks some tough questions, although not quite the right ones, and Robertson stalwartly and expertly defends his faith.

Overall, both men did just fine, however, they don’t quite drill down into the fundamental differences between faith-based and reason-based modes of thinking, not even during the protracted Q&A.

Orton vs. Robertson on the radio (UK)

This episode of Unbelieveable was yet another debate over where might get one's moral ideas if not from stone tablets carved out on Mt. Sinai. Honestly, I wonder why Christians think this question is such a stumper. If you define morality to mean absolute commands which come down from above, then of course you'll need to have a god up on high giving out commands.

The atheist in this show is a layman and a bit of a try-hard, he barely gets a word in edgewise, much less a decent argument, though he is constantly being prodded by the host to do so. The Christian apologist, by contrast, rambles on and repeatedly claims that everything good and pure comes from Christianity while discounting any harms it caused along with the moral values of every other culture. Such old school cultural imperialism ought not be too shocking from a British minister and True Scotsman.

This one is not worth your time, even when played at 2x.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Humphreys vs. Holding on the radio (UK)

In this episode of Unbelievable, James Patrick "JP" Holding ( debates Ken Humphreys ( on the question of the historical Jesus. I should wrn you that they don't really get into anything like substantive debate until after 25-30 minutes have gone by.

On his website, Holding defends extravagant miraculous and theological claims about what Jesus actually said and did in his life on Earth, but in the course of framing of this particular debate he manages to stake out a far more defensible position, essentially that Jesus of Nazareth was an actual rabbi who was alive during the early first century and had disciples and a wider following. Humphreys, by contrast, actually tries to defend the same position that he advocates on his website, namely, that Jesus was never an actual historical figure but merely and emergent mythic figure like William Tell or King Arthur.

Since Holding abandons his own actual position and defends the moderate middle ground of agnostic leaning scholars such as Bart Ehrman, he manages to come off as the seemingly more reasonable interlocutor in this discussion, but not without some cost to his reputation as a forthright and stalwart defender of the whole gospel.

Humphreys comes off as well-informed and passionate, thought (alas) a bit more of the latter than the former. He tries to show that the gospels and other source materials are "late and fake" but does not make nearly so strong a case as someone like Richard Carrier or Earl Doherty could have done. He should have focused more on the appearances of more and more biographical details of Jesus later and later in the game.

The only particular point that I'd like raise about this debate is that Holding is treading on very dangerous apologetical ground when he brings up the "edifying fiction" defense around 39:30 or so, because it plays right into the myther hypothesis that all of the gospels were also created in precisely the same way, and that they would be shelved under devotional fiction to this day if only we knew all the details of their origins.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Roughgarden vs. Wright on BhTV

Now this is what I'm talking about when I argue that we must to "teach the controvery" (all of them, really) when we present the essentials of biological science to those in undergraduate programs.

In this diavlog, Roughgarden puts Wright on the defensive regarding selfish genes, sexual selection, and a number of other topics, including the joys of mating versus childrearing.  She repeatedly upbraids those who do research without first clearly defining their alternative hypotheses.  Wright, for his part, puts up a fairly good defense for someone who doesn't have a Ph.D.  in biology.

Wood vs. Gulam in Romulus, MI

Normally, I have some sense of whom I consider to be "on my side" in a debate, but this debate was between someone who claims that Jesus died for only three days and someone who claims taht Jesus somehow survived crucifixion.  The apriori probabilites of each event seems relatively low, since we only know of one person who allegedly survived crucifixion (from Flavius Josephus) and we have relatively few historically verifiable stories of reainmated corpses, despite a recent resurgance in the popularity of zombie flicks.

Oddly enough, I found that the Muslim debater was making arguments which I am used to hearing from skeptics such as Richard Carrier, Bart Ehrman, and Robert Price.  Part of his argument is essentially that since the gospel accounts are inconsistent on key points, we cannot trust them on their crucifixion accounts.

Of course, the Christian has the better arguments here, because pretty much all of the accounts which might possibly be construed as historical narratives are on his side.  That said, he doesn't do nearly so well as one might expect given such an overwhelming advantage.  

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Carr vs. Cole on the radio (UK)

In this episode of Unbelievable, we hear from atheist blogger Steven Carr and Canon Michael Cole on the topic of whether Jesus rose from the dead. We also hear from any number of ignorant Britons who call in to broadcast their lack of understanding on the medium wave radio.

Unless you are a sadist (like myself) bound and determined to listen to every debate on this topic, I'd advise you to move on right now. This debate consisted primarily of the skeptic noting that the early epistles do not seem to have any notion of a physical (rather than merely spiritual) resurrection and empty tomb, while the cleric repeats over and over that you have the take the New Testament as a whole. Really, I just summed up the entire first hour of the show. They hardly even scratch the surface on the gospels as sources, whether reliable or otherwise.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Hitchens vs. Craig in Los Angeles, CA

About a score of freethinkers from all around OKC converged on Trinity Baptist Church in Norman, OK for this event.  Good times were had by all on hand, so far as I could see. Theists and atheists sat cheek by jowl, and were generally polite and respectful each to another. It was quite a fine and rare sight to behold.

Craig lead with his usual five arguments

1. Cosmological (Kalam)
2. Teleological (Paley/Ross)
3. Moral argument (Lewis)
4. Tomb / Epiphanies / Conversion (Habermas)
5. Properly basic beliefs (Plantinga)

None of these arguments are at all novel, and Craig makes most of them in mostly the same way in most of his debates, so Hitchens had absolutely no excuse for failing to directly address at least a few of them, even if philosophy is not exactly his bag.

Hitch leads with a bit of methodological criticism which sounds fairly ad homish, and then pretty much just goes off on the history of the Xn church and its various abuses of power and privilege. He also makes the argument that it seems absurd to expect a revelatory deity to only reveal Himself in to a few illiterate peasants in ancient Palestine relatively late in human history. Surely, it is absurd, but Hitchens pretty much leaves the details as a proof for the reader.

In the rebuttals, things go from bad to worse, as Craig pretty much refutes Hitch's main points
and repeatedly pounds him for failing to return the favor. At first, this is just unfair, since no one should have to rebut during their own opening, but eventually the accusation sticks and goes on to become the overarching motif of the debate. Hitchens increasingly rambles and mumbles, and one begins to fear the debate may become too one-sided to prove illuminating to all concerned.

Mercifully, though, someone at BIOLA decided beforehand to put aside time for cross-examination, and that is when things finally got interesting. Craig conceded the possibility of allegorical layering in the Matthean gospel, as well as giving away a few other tidbits to the schools of higher criticism. It was particularly gratifying to see these two stumping each other and pausing to gather their thoughts.

All things considered, this debate was worth attending, if only for the almost perfect ying/yang combination of these two particular speakers. I'd watch it again, once it hits the internets.  Meanwhile, I can take out my frustration at Hitchens by watching this video over and over.

  • Unbeliever rating: 2.5

  • Believer rating: 4.5

  • Overall rating: 3.5

Monday, April 6, 2009

Law vs. Talbot in Oxford, UK

This debate between Stephen Law and  Marianne Talbot was unlike most of those that I've heard lately.  Both debaters were quite cordial and clearly philosophically sophisticated, which makes for a significantly higher level of listening than I am used to from such events.  This is a bit ironic here, because they both agreed to use Dawkins (deliberately unsophisticated) anti-theistic book as a jumping off point. 

Marianne Talbot outlines a distinctly unusual God hypothesis and gives a few reasons for her lack of unbelief, from the perspective of a philosopher who has read a bit too much Berkeley. Money quote from the other side, "Your idea of God is a bit different..."

Stephen Law focuses primarily on the evidential argument from evil, and goes on to sublimely and rather ingeniously flip around all the standard theodicies in order to defend an  hypothetical supremely evil and powerful deity.  I'm definitely adding this guy to my reading list, and to my anti-W.L.C. debater dream team.

This debate would have been a rare 5-star event, but for the fact that Talbot's argument for god cannot seem to be recast into a deductively valid form.  If someone can correct me on this, I'd be more than happy to accept the reproof.

Unbeliever rating: 5.0 stars
Believer rating 4.0 stars
Overall rating: 4.5 stars

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Ehrman vs. Licona in Matthews, NC

Bart Ehrman and Mike Licona, both prominent Biblical scholars and historians, debated the resurrection of Jesus at Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina (video, audio). As in their first debate, evangelical scholar Mike Licona has home field advantage and a very friendly crowd.

After a surprising amount of autobiography, Licona leads with three allegedly well-established facts from Biblical scholarship:

  1. Jesus was crucified and died

  2. Some disciples claimed to have seen Jesus afterward

  3. Paul also claimed to have seen Jesus afterward

He goes on to claim that the best way to explain these facts is to conclude that the gospels are reliable in their claims of a literal bodily resurrection. His argument is that if you accept the New Testament accounts on these key details, you should go on to accept the gospels at face value, no matter how mythical the accounts might seem, because there is no point in ruling anything out as inherently unlikely, however miraculous it might be. Essentially, it is as if he lifted a resurrection-shaped hole out of the gospel accounts, and went on to note how perfectly he could plug that hole by reinserting the resurrection into the accounts from whence it was lifted. Of course, he manages to make it sound a good deal more reasonable than that, by going on at some length about historical methodology.

Ehrman's opening is a fairly strong condensation of his general case against the reliability of the gospels as historical sources, in which He uses the phrase "it depends on which gospel you read" at least two dozen times in reply to various historical questions he poses. He also provides a different account of historical methodology than that given by Licona. Ehrman seems to think that ancient written accounts are never going to be strong enough evidence to demonstrate the truth of a miraculous claim, given the very low apriori probability of such claims relative to other possibilities, e.g. mythmaking, hallucinations, dreams, visions, false memories.

On rebuttal, both speakers do a fine job of addressing their opponent's case head-on, which is surprisingly rare in these kinds of debates. I found Ehrman's rebuttal more effective, but then it seems to me that he had most of the relevant facts on his side. No doubt the audience saw it in a different light.

It should be noted that a major point of difference between the speakers lies in their treatment of probability, and neither one provides a full enough account of what probability theory really does in order to dispel his opponent's intuitions about how probability works. They would do well to go back to fundamentals on this issue. Mike even seems to posit that the relevant probability is the likelihood that an event takes place given that the most powerful being in the universe wants it to happen, which I'm pretty sure is a theological premise neither covered in his original three points nor established by independent argument.

Overall, though, this debate featured strong openings and vigorous give and take between two of the top scholars in the relevant field. Definitely worth seeing.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Mac Donald vs. Douthat on BhTV

In this dialogue (which often borders on becoming a debate) Heather Mac Donald and Ross Douthat go back and forth on a number of issues of interest to secularists and theologians.  At her insistence, they spend a good deal of time on the matter of temporal and cosmic justice, as well as the problems of evil and theodicy and religious episemology.

One of the more interesting features of this diavlog is that both of the authors here are firm and outspoken conservatives, though neither leans towards theocracy.  This leaves them free to disagree about matters other than that usually featured at BhTV.  Enjoy!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Hayter vs Robertson on the radio

These two guys went on the Unbelievable show twice (part one, part two) that I know about.

In general, the host and producer of this show does a decent job of finding a bold, outspoken, and articulate Christian apologist and putting him up against someone who has little to no experience at public speaking and debate, a meek atheist who talks softly and haltingly. These episodes are no exception to the general run of the show, although there have been a few shining exceptions on occasion.

The program doesn't get very far in before David Robertson starts batting Adrian Hayter around like a cat toying with a mouse. It is vicariously embarassing to listen, and it serves as a warning to those who accept an invitation to play the role of Alan Colmes on a network that exists for the sake of making you look foolish.

You can safely skip these episodes, since there is rather little substantive debate to be found therein.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Smith vs. Jackson in Yukon, OK

Last night, I went out with a few friends to watch Abbie Smith debate a renowned young-earth creationist and itinerant preacher named Charles Jackson.

My first impression was that she’s a Mac, and he’s a PC. Abbie came off as more spontaneous and vastly less rigid and pompous than her interlocutor, especially after she really warmed to her work. Dr. Jackson, by contrast, pretty much followed his usual formula, which you can enjoy on YouTube. Also, it is of some note that Abbie is waaaay friendlier in person than one might ever suppose from reading her blog. I already knew that, but still, the contrast was striking.

Probably the most striking part of Dr. Jackson's presentation was the part in which he admitted (and even displayed) the remarkable degree of homology between human and chimp genomes and then when on to claim that this evidence is not to be taken as confirmation of common descent, but rather as evidence of an intelligent designer who pretty much recycles as much genetic material as possible when making new species. This guy can speak the whole cosmos into being, but cannot seem to be bothered to invent too much in the way of unique gene sequences for the one and only species that created specifically in the hopes that they would eventually get around to freely loving and worshipping Him. Small wonder, then, that the humans so often take to murdering each other for access to resources and mates, as if they were naught but tallish, baldish apes.

The good doctor took this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, namely, that the chromosomal fusion event (absolutely necessary to confirm the theory of common descent) did actually happen, but it happened in humans - presumably sometime between the creation of Adam and Eve and the eventual extermination of almost the entire species in the Noahic flood.

Congratulations, then, to Dr. Jackson for putting forth a research agenda for creation scientists everywhere. His hypothetical homo sapiens with 24-pairs of chromosomes should be found in strata just below the Noahic floodline, having lived only a few thousand years ago, somewhere between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Once the unfairly marginalized (dare I say EXPELLED) research scientists of the ICR make this find, they will finally get the attention they so roundly deserve. Go to it, guys!

  • Unbeliever rating: 4.0 stars

  • Believer rating: 3.0 stars

  • Overall rating: 3.5 stars

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Carrier vs. Craig in Maryville, MO

This long-awaited clash between two men who are arguably the most learned representatives of the far-left and far-right of Biblical scholarship took place right here in the flyover states, of all places. I'd seriously considered making the drive out, and after hearing the quality of the only mp3 file posted thus far, I sort of wish that I'd taking the time and effort to do so.

On style and persuasiveness, Craig takes this one hands down. He was working with three significant advantages: the affirmative position, home-field advantage, and an inherent human tendency to prefer explanations based on intention to those based on the contingent results of unplanned natural processes.

On substance and logical coherence, though, Carrier almost pulled even about halfway into the Q&A, during which he managed to flesh out his valid arguments enough to make them more-or-less sound. Here is one, paraphrased and formalised a bit:
  1. If early Christians were creating mythic tales instead of recording history as it actually happened, we would expect Mark's writings to be more detailed and fabulous than previous Christian writings, as well as less detailed and fabulous than later Christian writings.
  2. In fact, this is precisely what we do see, inasmuch as the later canonical and non-canonical Christian writings generally do include more details and more fabulous stories than earlier ones.
  3. Therefore, it is probably that Mark (and his contemporaneous oral historians) were making myth rather than recording historical events.

I'm not going to go into Carrier's empirical support for premise #2 here, but suffice to say it was expansive and difficult to rebut. However authoritatively and however many times Craig boldly declares that he has "multiple independently attested sources" it still doesn't make it so, and Craig at no point refutes the Carrier's arguments that the various resurrection accounts bear the marks of literary dependence one upon another.

  • Unbeliever rating: 3.75 stars

  • Believer rating: 4.25 stars

  • Overall rating: 4.0 stars

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Baggini vs Beale on the radio (UK)

FFWD tip: Around 24:00 they finally start in on cosmological fine tuning.

Nicholas Beale ( makes the argument that because the constants of physics fall within a small range allowing for complex life, we can safely assume that our universe exists by for a reason, that is, by design. Incidentally, Beale is given almost ten minutes to lecture with only minor questioning from the host. To my knowledge, this has never happened to a guest sceptic.

Julian Baggini ( makes the case that it is a bad idea for theists to plug God into the epistemic gaps which science has yet to explain, because much of the time science comes along later on and fills those gaps with solid scientific theories. He says that it is a bad idea to leave religion vulnerable to scientific disproof in this way.

p.s. Big W00t 4 STAR TREK music!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Singer vs. Hare

Moral Mammals - Why do we Matter? - Does theism or atheism provide the best foundation for human worth and morality? from The Veritas Forum on Vimeo.

An excellent debate between two sophisticated moral philosophers over the ultimate nature of reality and morality. Singer makes the case that we should act to maximize happiness (broadly construed) because we like happiness and we empathize with other mammals. Hare argues that this is not enough, we need to be moral out of love and fear of the divine. They both do this persuasively and politely, and although I disagree with both of them I found the conversation most enjoyable.

Dr. Peter Singer leads with a series of questions on the nature of morality. Is it merely a matter of obeying rules from above? Is it a set of heuristics which help us to achieve some of our mutual goals? Do we not recoil at atrocity even if no one tells us it is wrong? He then fairly quickly launches into a brief exposition of the Euthyphro dilemma, concluding that we must make sense of moral ideas in terms other than theistic commands. He goes on to point out a few noteworthy difficulties with attempting to derive morality from either the Hebrew or Christian scriptures. He then provides a few thoughts on the evolutionary origins of morality and its analogues in the animal kingdom. He closes with an appeal to a modified form of the golden rule, one which roughly approaches a sort of universal prescriptivism.

Dr. John Hare (son of famed ethicist R.M. Hare) makes it clear up front that he and Singer have a similar sense of what entails the good, but he wants to argue about the question of moral motivation. “Why be moral?” one might ask, if one is concerned only with furthering one’s own happiness, and the commitment to morality becomes shaky at best. He quotes from the great utilitarian Henry Sidgwick to make the point that we are naturally motivated primarily to help ourselves and those close to us, as opposed to everyone equally, as demanded by the moral principle of universalizability. He then argues that we can overcome this bias for ourselves, our families, our tribes, etc. by trusting in God and following His universal laws grounded in His universal love for everyone. This brings us, quite naturally, to the problem of evil, to which Hare gives us the most bizarre retort I’ve ever heard with my own ears. He says that we need to take seriously the experience of those people (e.g. Holocaust survivors) who say that their faith sustained them in the face of great human evil, while implicitly discounting those who (equally sincerely) affirm that such terrible experiences forced them to reconsider and reject their faith. He makes a few more attempts to hang ethics on theism, few of which are more well grouded than this one.

During the rebuttal period, each speaker has another go at the foundations of ethics, and Singer basically concedes that if you are asking for a universal moral arbiter, the universe isn''t going to help you out with that. All that it will do is provide you with a multitude of preachers and gurus and mullahs who disagree on major issues.

The Q&A period features both distinguished philosophers sitting back and relaxing at the coffee table and chatting about written questions. Would that they'd haave gone back and forth questioning each other instead!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Bacrac vs Keller on the radio (UK)

This episode of Unbelievable quickly disgressed into a debate over the origins of moral thinking, as they so often do. They go back and forth and mostly past each other for quite awhile.

Around 48 minutes in, they finally get down to brass tacks, when the Christian asks why we shouldn't simply prefer our cooperation to comptetiion in structuring our ethical systems? Alas, Bacrac's answer is essentially question begging, or else so poorly expressed that we cannot tell why he labels certain actions as immoral. What he ought to have said, "Those actions are wrong because they increase suffering and decrease well-being. In fact, that is precisely what we consequentialists mean when we call something immoral or wrong." He eventually gets around to saying something like this almost ten minutes later.

Keller puts theistic ethics in a nutshell around 1:05:30 "I'd rather submit to a tradition than set myself up as the arbiter of all truth. I don't trust my own heart."

Overall, I'd say that Keller manages to sound calmer and more reasonable than Bacrac, though he gets more than a little help from the presenter.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Buckner vs. Bocchino at Georgia Tech

This one was a geniune debate, but in an odd format. Instead of opening statements, the moderator asked the interlocutors a series of questions, starting from very basic assumptions about reality. Questions such as "Does our reality need to be scientifically verifiable or falsifiable?" and "How does one's belief or non-belief in God alter one's perception of reality?" and "What is the reality of free will?" and "Is there any ultimate purpose to life?"

With such questions as these, you may well imagine that the debate might be somewhat weak tea, and you'd be correct. While things do pick up a bit later on, I'd say that this on is not exactly worth an hour of your time, expecially given the annoyingly scratchy audio.

Here is a more uplifting review.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dembski vs. Ruse in Norman, OK

I've been to many a debate before, and I've seen and heard many more courtesy of the internet, but I've never before seen or heard two well-educated people debating the relative merits of evolution vs. creation. As of last night, I still haven't.

Ruse made the case that intelligent design (ID) is really creationism via miraculous divine intervention, and therefore not 'science' in the usual sense, that is, the investigation of natural phenomena via observation and testing. He did this ably enough, but at no point seemed to bring any arguments to bear on the question of whether creationism is TRUE or FALSE; a question of some interest to Oklahomans who seem to be generally unconvinced by scientists with all their fancy cladograms and chromosomal breakpoints and other such what-nots.

Dembski, by contrast, made the same arguments that he made last time he was here in favor of the idea that at least some natural phenomena are divinely designed rather than naturally evolved. His argument, in essence, is this:

  1. Some aspects of nature (e.g. bacteria flagella, clotting factors) are so well-put-together that we cannot now conceive of how they possibly came to be in an incremental fashion, as every component part appears to be essential to fulfilling its current function
  2. If we cannot now conceive of how such things came together in an evolutionary, stepwise, incremental fashion, then they must have come together via an intelligently guided process
  3. Therefore, we can conclude that such things were intelligently designed

Of course, the problem here lies in step 2, in which Dembski boldly claims that in the absence of a current evolutionary explanation, we must default exclusively to divine design rather than remaining open-minded. He makes no argument to support the idea that this is a rational default position, instead relying on the fact that most everyone in the room had just such a view indoctrinated into them during Sunday School, when they were still too young to think for themselves.

Note that Dembski (and most other ID theorists) prefer to confine their speculations to the deepest depths of evolutionary history, such as the evolution of intracellular mechanisms, which are not well understood because they happened very long ago. Thus, they ensure themselves the benefit of massive, god-sized gaps in which to cram a creator deity or three. It would be quite interesting to see the ID crowd attempt to make the case that humans are themselves designed, rather than simply tweaked up a bit from ancestral chimps. To my knowledge, they've not attempted to do this, much to the disappointment of the Trinity Baptists and others who are funding the evangelists of ID in hopes of bringing the cosmogony of Genesis 1-2 to the science classrooms.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Cave & Nugent vs. O'Mahoney & Cowper in Cork, Ireland

This debate was certainly original, sporting a number of unusual features.  Firstly, it was done in a grand tradition of an ancient philosophical society with a formal resolution to be either carried or defeated.  Secondly, it was done with two speakers on either side, two for and two against the proposition.  Thirdly and finally, it generally eschewed modern apologetics and counter-arguments in favor of more venerable arguments. 

While there were plenty of rhetorical stingers in this back-and-forth, there was nothing really resembling a formally valid deductive or inductive argument given on either side.  While this is all too common, I still find it frustrating to, as it is impossible to point out where exactly your opponent goes wrong if he doesn’t bother to elucidate his premises and show how his conclusions follow therefrom.  If you cannot even tell whether someone has made an argument that is valid and sound, then you will tend to agree or disagree with his views not because they are persuasive but because of your own predispositions.  At that point a debate becomes a bit of a farce rather than a process for finding the truth.

All told, this event was mildly entertaining but ultimately underwhelming, unelucidating and unsatisfying  — a  bit like reality television.





Sunday, February 22, 2009

DiCarlo vs. Boot in Oshawa, ON

This debate is unique in any number of interesting ways. The skeptical speaker is avowedly agnostic on the question of deism, and he's not "down on religion" but thinks that religious belief does plenty of good. Moreover, the believing speaker is clearly well-versed in post-modern philosophical thought, which is something that I don't usually hear from priests or theologians.

Also, the extent of crowd participation and number of applause lines were exceptionally great in this debate. Lines like "it is impossible for all world religions to be right, but it is possible for all world religions to be wrong" and "I don't need a divine hand patting me on the back to do good" get big applause, and even this guy gets a big shout out from the peanut gallery.

As to the arguments themselves, I think it is accurate to say that each speaker talked past the other to some extent. The skeptic went after Biblical literalists, while the believer went after communists, existentialists, and nilihists. I suppose there are those who might suppose most believers and unbelievers fall easily into such categories, but surely this is not so.

  • Unbeliever rating: 3.5 stars 

  • Believer rating: 2.5 stars

  • Overall rating: 3 stars

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dennett vs. Plantinga in Chicago, IL

In this presentation (which mutated into a debate) one certainly gets the sense that Alvin Plantinga is just plain bluffing.  He throws up plenty of nifty maths onto the whiteboard, but these serve primarily to obfuscate his false premises rather than bring enlightenment to the audience.  Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism was thoroughly rebutted some time ago, and he seems even not to be unaware of these cogent criticisms of his position. Moreover, he seemed not to notice when Dennett explicitly rejected and refuted his key premise.

A bit of background is necessary here, because Plantinga's argument is fairly technical and most people don't much grok maths, especially Bayesian probabilities.  Suffice to say that for his argument to go through he must show that humans most always form true beliefs about the world [ P(R)≈1 ] and that probability of this happening if metaphysical naturalism and evolutionism are true is low [P(R|E&N)≈0].    

Alas, Plantinga fails to substantiate either of these claims in anything like a rigorous logical fashion.  He more or less assumes the truth of the former premise and pretty much hand-waves his way to the latter.  When a brilliant logician such as Alvin Plantinga is waving his hands instead of outlining a deductive argument, well, caveat emptor.

A couple points must be made here.  Metaphysical materialists cannot assume P(R)≈1 since we believe that all talk of gods, spirits, ghosts, chakras, etc. is all so much bunk.  People around the world make up all sorts of wacky beliefs about disembodied minds and imaginary forces emanating therefrom, thus, P(R) is evidently nowhere near unity.  Moreover, since most religions (with a few interesting exceptions) assert that all other religions make up all sorts of untruths about the world, which are integrated into their devotees worldviews, it seems odd for any religious person to argue that humans almost always form true beliefs about the world. Finally, it should be evident from the abundance of material at sites like and that we humans are prone to all manner of irrational thinking, not least of which is a tendency to attribute agency where none exists.

Secondly, while the probability P(R|E&N) is nowhere near unity, it is neither so low as to allow Plantinga's argument to go through.  The crucial question here is whether we would expect naturalistic evolutionary mechanisms to select for true beliefs over false ones.  This question is not nearly so simple as it sounds (or as Plantinga's treatment suggests) but it should be fairly obvious that it is generally far easier to program a neural network to solve problems of adaptivity by providing adaptive goals and good data than by providing maladaptive goals and bad data.

Dennett managed to raise some of these points by way of an awkward analogy, but to be fair he was dealing with a mathematical smokescreen while standing up.  This is something no one should be expected to do.  

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Hitch vs. Everybody

This was a panel discussion in which several popular Christian apologists have a go at the Hitch. Perhaps surprisingly, he manages to hold his own.

At first each speaker makes very brief outline-style arguments (less than five minutes per speaker) none of which are nearly fleshed out and all of which are quite the usual fare. Then they all start going back and forth (perhaps inevitably) on the theological problem of evil and the nature of evil.

Hitchens moves on a bit with his usual hypothetical question "Can you name any moral action that can only be taken by a religious believer?" The theists respond, funnily enough, with tithing and worship. Hijinks ensue. This part wasn't particularly enlightening, as far as I can see. Of course Christians frame morality in terms of obedience, and of course secular humanists do not.
The interlocutors then have a go at the veractiy and verifiability of miracles, and then go aroudn on various topics in the field of philosophy of religion. As usual, the theists argue strenuously that any morality based upon one's own moral feelings of empathy for others is clearly and obviously inferioir to the morality of the slave who takes joy from obedience to his master. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

Overall this was an enjoyable discussion, but don't expect too much depth on any given topic.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Konner vs. Williams on the radio (UK)

You may want to fast forward to around 17 minutes into this episode of Unbelievable when they finally get around to the interview and debate portion of the show.

Joan W. Konner reveals that she isn't precisely an unbeliever so much as a journalist with a mish-mash of religious ideas. Also, she believes in "sound bite wisdom." Anyone care for a nice spot of weak tea?

Peter S. Williams is a typically arrogant apologist, who wants to call himself a 'sceptic' while at the same time assuming the Bible to be loaded with trustworthy history, unlike every other allegedly holy book.

Around 40 minutes in, they finally get around to having an argument, and yet they all manage to sound fairly pointless. Indeed, the first bone of geniune contention get thrown in around 42 minutes into the show, and it is thrown back at the host when both guests agree that most religions have some truth.

Williams makes the claim that morality can only be properly considered in terms of obedience to a Divine Moral Authority, thereby begging the question of morality in favor of theism, as is popular in apologetical circles. In reply Konner quotes a number of secular moral thinkers. At this point I grow drowsy and crash my tiny car into a privet bush.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Barker vs. Butt in Columbia, SC

In this debate Dan Barker comes on strong with an ark-load of Biblical contradictions, and not a few snappy rhetorical jabs to boot. He really lays the boots into the God of the Bible, in much the same fashion as that used by DiCarlo only a few days later.  I find myself wondering whether these two guys exchanged notes.

Kyle Butt comes back with a teleological argument and a moral argument.  The former of these is not given in a particularly strong form, it is basically an update on Paley’s original argument but with a bit higher technology.  The latter argument was framed in precisely the same terms as the moral argument repeated time and again by Thomas Warren during his 8-hours marathon debate with Anthony Flew back in 1976, that is, the reiteration that the Nazis acted justly in their own moral and cultural context.  Both of these arguments are downright silly, though common enough in these sorts of events.

Butt’s rebutting is a bit better, but this debate doesn’t really get interesting until the cross-ex.  If not for an outstanding lack of restraint on the part of the audience, this bit would have been fairly fun.  I especially enjoyed the part where the alien invaders forced Dan to commit unspeakable crimes upon thousands of innocents.  Also, the blatant plug for was a nice touch.

  • Unbeliever rating: 3.5 stars

  • Believer rating: 2.5 stars

  • Overall rating: 3.0 stars


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Should Schools Teach Creationism? - Panel debate held at National Library of Scotland

Dr. Tiffany Jenkins is the first person I've ever met or even heard about who combines the title of Ph.D. with the given name of Tiffany. Is it odd that this strikes me as odd? She is both brilliant and beautiful, like my wife. Unlike my wife, she evidently knows how to control a room full of opinionated and arrogant men.

Alex McLellan ( leads off by noting (with disapproval) examples during which the evolution/creation debate has been squelched within academia. He goes on to claim that whenever science teachers teach science (particularly cosmology and biology) they are stepping on the toes of the theologians. I'm not sure that I disagree here, but it seems to me that this is not a particularly strong argument for supplmenting science textbooks with mythology or pseudoscience.

Christopher Brookmyre ( leads off with a decent number of various creation stories, none of which would ever get a hearing in public schools except the one from the Book of Genesis. He then gets highly interactive with the audience (which I admire) and makes the case that intelligent design creationism (IDC) is essentially built upon a false dichotomy between evolution and one particular religious cosmogony.

Marc Surtees ( tries to advance a scientific case for creationism, using something resembling a fusion of Kalam cosmological and fine-tuning arguments. He moves on to biological arguments against mutation as an adaquate generator of genetic diversity (new information) and particularly the amount of diversity we see in the Cambrian era. He pretty much manages to hit on all the major points of IDC in just under five minutes, and this is actually fairly impressive. It would have been quicker, though, to simply quote Stephen Colbert, "There must be a God, because I don't know how things work."

Julian Baggini ( attempts to put IDC in its place by pointing out that it doesn't make any scientifically testable claims, or advance any actual research, and this should be taken as reason enough to keep it out of science classrooms. He allows that these things should perhaps be discussed in meta-classes on philosophy of science and such like.

Dave Perks ( makes the argument that science teachers should only teach scientific theories and facts, and avoid unscientific meta-questions of meaning and purpose. I'm not sure why the science teachers would want to stand in for the high school counselors (during the week) or youth ministers (during the weekends) in their respective vocations of helping students choose their purposes for life. No matter how bright this guy actually is, he is clearly the least prepared and least articulte speaker on the panel. During the cross-ex, it becomes clear that he is the least polite as well.

Around 35 minutes in we go into a back-and-forth cross examination of the various panelists by one another. Baggini gets the first good argument in with an appeal to Hume (a great Scotsman) and his notion that we cannot extrapolate from the real world (matter moving in space over time) outward to the transcendent (beyond space and time). After that, things get a bit more chaotic and more familiar to fans of the daytime television brawls.

Overall, this debate makes it obvious why IDC is not scientific enough for the science classroom, and as such it is worth watching.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Kagan vs. Craig in NYC, NY

Kagan leads with the idea that moral actions are simply those which either help people or avoid harming people.  This is not terribly different from the moral theory alluded to by Louise Antony in her debate against Craig, although Kagan is more explicit in his explication of the theory.  Kagan goes on to sketch out a few possible moral theories which work without reference to any supervening transcendent minds.

[ This is where I would ordinarily summarize both opening statements, but it seems that Wintery Knight beat me to it and did so in some depth.  Suffice to say that Craig's opening was almost verbatim as his opening in the debate against Antony.]

Kagan does a better job than Antony at demonstrating the possibility of ethics without gods, but he may have seemed more effective primarily because the two men were exchanging interrogatives in a relatively relaxed and informal manner, as opposed to alternately monologuing.  Also, it may be that Antony and Kagan fared better than more nontheist debaters because the ground rules called for discussion on fairly narrow topic, which to some degree hobbles Craig's firehose approach of overwhelming his opponent with a half-dozen arguments and then repeatedly calling them out for failing to address each of them in a relatively brief rebuttal period.

That said, Kagan certainly deserves some credit for elucidating the differences between their views in plain language that the audience can follow, and for calling out Craig on certain unsubstantiated presuppositions, such as the fantastically egotistical idea that only ultimate cosmic meaning may make metaethics meaningful.

Overall rating: 4.5 stars

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Barker vs. D'Souza in Minneapolis, MN

Dan Barker and Dinesh D’Souza are both articulate, fun, and easy on the ears, which is a big plus.  For the most part, they lack (or avoid) the supercilious tones and lofty language which unfortunately all too endemic to these sort of debates. 

Barker leads with his secular conception of ethics, that is, avoidance of harm.  He points out that ethics are necessarily rational (requires some thought) and situational (i.e. relative rather than absolute) and must be more than blindly following a list of rules handed down by an authority, a position he derisively refers to as “toddler morality.”  He also points out the exceeding virtue of various skeptics and unbelievers, both classical and modern.  He ultimately fails, however, to make a solid argument in favor of a secular conception of morality as opposed to a sacred morality, though he does perhaps make the case that neither version of morality results in a uniform and consistent set of moral principles.

D’Souza makes a fascinating and relatively unusual argument that the ethics of Christianity lead to the cultural superiority of Christendom, which points to the truth and superiority of Christian belief.  He claims that when atheists behave virtuously, it may be because they grew up in a culture inundated with traditional Christian values.  Here is a representative sample, “These are the virtues of our civilization, and the question I want to ask is, ‘What is the source of these virtues?’ in other words if you make a list of these virtues, and take a look at the list I think you’ll realize if you have any historical sense whatsoever that these virtues came into the West (and in some cases into the world) because of Christianity.”  Remarkably, D’Souza includes the following virtues in this part of his argument:

  • Sanctity of human life
  • Scientific progress
  • Individualism
  • Abolitionism
  • Compassion
  • Feminism

Now, one can easily make a case that each and every one of these virtues get some treatment in the Bible (e.g. Jesus elevated women well beyond what one expects of a first century Jewish rabbi) but it is equally true that all branches of the Christian church have opposed each of these virtues on any number of quite significant occasions, at least as often as they moved these values forward.  Barker points this out, although not nearly in the level of detail which one might hope. 

D’Souza also makes the argument that only societies founded on Marxism truly represent the ethics of godlessness, because these societies incorporated godlessness as a core tenet of their political culture.  This is a very difficult argument to meet, because it is undoubtedly true that blind faith in the prophet Marx and his prophecies have caused at least as much human suffering as any (other) religious system.  About the best one can do here is to point out that the post-enlightenment western philosophies of rationalism and freethought bear as little resemblance to the irrational faith of Marxism as Christianity does. 

The rebuttal periods are really quite fun, both debaters do a fine job of more or less directly addressing each other’s arguments without too much in the way of misconstrual or prevarication.  Indeed, this debate is relatively free of such things, at least until near the end of the Q&A, in which D’Souza attributes to Barker an impulse to believe and practice Dostoyevsky’s claim that, “If God is not, everything is permitted.”  The implicit premise in any argument claiming that metaphysical naturalism implies moral nihilism must be that the only possible reason to be moral is the fear of divine retribution.  I had thought that “toddler morality” is perhaps too strong a phrase for the theistic position on the nature of ethics, but it would seem that D’Souza has chosen to flesh out this strawman on his own.

All told, I’d give each of these guys four stars, and I look forward to hearing more of them.