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.  

Payton vs. Craig on Micahel Coren

In this televised debate the interlocutors spend much of the hour going around in circles over the argument from evil, but never quite manage to drill down to the details.  This is a bit of a shame, really, because one gets the sense that they could if only given the chance.  Just when it seemed they were about to address the likelihood that all of the evil and suffering in the world is always for the greater good (as Craig asserts) they go to commercial and change the subject.

Payton makes some inroads at refuting Craig’s argument from fine-tuning, noting that we would expect to see such fine-tuning if intelligent life evolved (somehow, anywhere, at any time) to suit its environment.  Again, when it looked like we just might flesh out the relevant issues, we move on to the next topic.  Ah, television.

Craig makes an excellent point about 34 minutes into the recording, “Someone like Dawkins may be a good scientist in his field, when he begins to talk about philosophy and theology, he is merely a layman, and The God Delusion is a very unsophisticated book, intellectually.  As a philosopher, I was just appalled by the arguments that he gives in that book, it was an embarrassment, really.”  I am no philosopher (and hopefully I’ll never become one) but this was more-or-less precisely my reaction to that particular book.  This is a digression, of course, but I cannot help but notice here that precisely the same criticism may be leveled at apologists (such as Alvin Plantinga and William Dembski) who makes philosophically sophisticated but scientifically naïve arguments against naturalistic evolution.  All of these guys would be far better off doing their homework before sallying forth and getting published.

All things considered, I was quite surprised at how well a youngling like Payton managed to hold off Craig’s ordinarily overwhelming lines of attack.  Possibly this was because of the moderation of the host, but that cannot account for too much, given Coren’s expressly faith-based stance on these issues.  More likely it was the format of the show, styled as a somewhat conversational back-and-forth.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars



Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Noonan vs. Durston in Windsor, ON

These guys are not professional debaters, but rather professors or lecturers, and it really shows.

Durston makes two theistic arguments which are essentially the same as Bill Craig's first (cosmological) and third (moral) arguments for the existence of God. Since Durston takes his time with these two arguments, they sound even sillier than they usually do when given rapidly and smoothly by Craig. Essentially, Durston's moral argument is this:

1. Objective moral values cannot exist except in the mind of god

2. But objective moral values really do exist

3. Therefore, god exists. QED.

To quote Arif Ahmed, “[He] says objective moral values exist, and I think we all know it. Now that might pass for an argument at Talbot Theological Seminary, and it might pass for an argument in the White House, but this is Cambridge, and it will not pass for an argument here.” Baldly baseless assertion ought not pass for an argument on this side of the Atlantic, either, especially not in a university setting. More a more extended refutation of the deductive argument from objective morality, see this post.

Alas, even with such a weak opponent as Durston, the skeptic in this debate nonetheless manages to fall on his face. Like Christopher Hitchens, he makes almost nothing resembling a coherent argument, but just rambles on for a bit about the efficacy of science. Here is a hint for those arguing in favor of metaphysical naturalism: Try making an argument that starts with “If naturalism if true…” and includes “whereas on theism we would expect” before going on at length about the efficaciousness of methodological naturalism. You cannot expect the audience to connect the dots for you, especially if you only provide some of the dots.

Overall rating: 2 stars

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Brown vs. Craig in Toronto, ON

Craig leads with his usual arguments, each of which ought to be readily rebuttable: 

  1. Cosmological argument from a cosmic first cause
  2. Teleological argument from universal fine-tuning
  3. Objective moral values cannot exist apart from God
  4. Jesus lives!  (empty tomb / post-mortem appearances / Xn belief)
  5. Altar call / subjective experiences

The first two arguments basically fall back on the following dichotomy, either the universe came to be the way it is because of (a) natural processes we do not fully understand or (b) some sort of immaterial non-spatiotemporal über-mind.  Craig puts forth nothing even resembling a valid argument which ought to lead a rational person to prefer the latter option over the former, but instead relies on a bit of hand-waving and an inherent human bias in favor of explanations rooted in agency rather than more difficult natural explanations (the details of which may or may not be forthcoming).  It blows my mind that Craig keeps getting away with this spouting this sort of question-begging poppycock from an academic pulpit, but there it is.

Craig’s third argument is just pointless, since “objective moral values” is a wholly nonsensical idea.  Values are by definition subjective, even if they happen to exist in the mind of a Cartesian evil demon or any other sort of bodiless spirit (only hardcore Platonists can even hope to contend otherwise).  Moreover, divine moral values are no good unless they are good values.  What good would it do the human race if the divine values permit slavery and genocide?

Craig’s fourth argument more-or-less assumes the reliability of the gospel narratives, an approach which only has persuasive force to someone who is already a Christian.  Few people believe that other people’s scriptures are anything other than myths, and this is just as it should be, since they usually contain all manner of fabulous stories which are completely unattested outside of their particular faith tradition.

Brown wastes a fair bit of time talking about classical arguments for and against God, before getting around to the problem of evil and a few moral conundrums related to theistic morality.  On rebuttal, Craig manages to make mincemeat of these, since Brown failed to start in on a properly evidential argument (at least not until his closing statement). He also wastes a bit of time on the nature of faith, again, because he fails to make a positive argument in favor of metaphysical naturalism.  This is a serious shortcoming, since merely pointing out that faith is not an argument is not an argument in itself.  If there are some people in the audience who could be convinced by the sorts of the arguments presented in a debate, they are surely not fideists.  Finally, Brown grants the existence of objective moral truths, at which point he may well have delivered his flag to Craig’s camp.  Considering the inherent weakness of the arguments from objective morality, this should be considered a gratuitous bit of self-harm on Brown’s part.

On rebuttal and on cross, these guys mix it up and both demonstrate a high-level of familiarity with various subjects while managing to cast substantive doubt upon almost all of the affirmative arguments which were given during the opening statements.  Brown, to his credit, manages to point out a number of the major problems with Craig’s arguments, though he does so a bit confusingly at times.  Brown makes up a good deal of ground after the opening statements, but never quite catches up.  It seems to me that Brown could have had Craig pinned and writing if they had been given another hour for cross-ex.  Alas…

Altogether, this is one of the better debates because of its high level of substantive interchange.  Definitely worth a listen.

  •           Unbeliever rating: 4.25 stars
  •           Believer rating: 4.75 stars
  •           Overall rating: 4.5 stars

Date: 27-Jan-2009

Monday, January 26, 2009

DiCarlo vs. Craig in Waterloo, ON

This debate stands out for a bizarre lack of debate, and this seems like the unfortunate result of a poorly framed topic question, “Does God matter?”  Essentially, Craig makes the argument that life is ultimately meaningless without God, while DiCarlo counters “Meh.”  The problem is that Craig assumes that only ultimate meaning is worthwhile, but DiCarlo claims to be perfectly content with proximate meaning.  Between these two competing sets of intuitive and subjective premises, there is no common ground over which to contend and perhaps stake a claim.

On the other hand, it was pretty cool to hear Craig deviate from his usual script for a change.

Overall rating: 2.5 stars 


Hitchens vs. D'Souza in Boulder, CO

Links to debate: video, mp3

D’Souza cedes ground early on by narrowing the playing field to arguments “rooted in reason, and skepticism, and history, and philosophy, in other words, Christopher Hitchens and I are debating…on the same ground.” It wasn’t a particularly good idea for him to play to his opponent’s strengths up front. A professional debater such as William Lane Craig would never make such a mistake against such a learned opponent.

As he did in against Barker, D’Souza leads with a list of secular virtues:

  • Individuality
  • Dignity of women
  • Abolition of slavery
  • Compassion as a social virtue

Once again, his opponent does take the trouble to point out that these virtues have been retarded by religious faith at least at much as they’ve been advanced thereby. One need only look at the official position of the Church of England on (1) the individualist manifestoes of the Enlightenment era, (2) the suffragette movement, (3) the abolition of slavery in England, and (4) radical life-saving advances in medicine. In each case, England’s faith-based bastion of transcendental moral virtue lagged behind the English-speaking culture at large, which definitely undercuts D’Souza’s claim that it was the Christian faith which drove things forward.

Hitchens’ main argument (like Hitchens himself) was interesting if a bit sarcastic, “Life was nasty, brutish, and short. For the first 98,000 years of [human history] heaven watches with indifference. Who cares? Doesn’t look terrific, but they’re inching along, I guess. Let’s see how it goes. Two thousand years ago, it is decided, actually now we have to intervene - but only in illiterate parts of the Middle East. To reveal Our Face to the species and tell them how to behave - that should do it.” Hitchens claims that if you can believe this, you can believe pretty much anything about theology and ethics.

Eventually, they got around to cross-examining each other to great effect. While Hitch gets in more barbs, D'Souza manages to seem composed and even a bit amused.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Crossley vs Bird on the radio (UK)

[17-Jan-2009] [24-Jan-2009]

The title of these episodes is How Did Christianity Begin and the two guests in the studion co-wrote a book of the same title:

Undoubtedly, this collaboration helped them to discern precisely where they disagree about how we should best understand the gospels. They debate back and forth quite a bit, mostly about how these documents were developed over time, and to what extent they should be considered undiluted eyewitness reports rather than the result of decades of mythical accretions upon orally transmitted traditions about Jesus. They went into special detail on the Christology of Paul and John, as well as the gospel resurrection stories, such as the zombie apocalypse of Matthew 27.

Interestingly, these two Bible scholars are not at the extremes (Gospel inerrantist, Jesus myther) but much more toward in the middle, but still on opposite sides of a chasm that can only be crossed with a leap of faith.

Overall I'd say that these two episodes, taken together, are one of the best radio debates on whether the Christian gospels should be believed and why. Definitely worth your time if you find this subject of interest.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Kane vs. Hippler in St. Paul, MN

This debate centered on the question of whether Christian or Humanist ethics provide a better account of obligatory moral claims.  Both debaters ultimately fail to make an affirmative case, however, both of them do a fairly good job of tearing down the other’s case.  The conclusion must be that if there is such a thing as obligatory moral claims, you shouldn’t try to get at them from the worldviews presented herein this discussion.  That said, it was a fairly worthwhile and enjoyable debate, with plenty of genuine back and forth.

Unbeliever rating: 3.5 stars

Believer rating: 3.5 stars

Overall rating: 3.5 stars




Thursday, January 1, 2009

Ehrman vs. Swinburne (radio)

I would never say that there exists a particularly rational counterargument to the evidential argument from evil, but Swinburne's attempts here are as good as they come.  This radio segment is worthwhile if only because you don't often hear sophisticated argument about the problem of evil on the radio.

De Sousa vs. Craig in Toronto, ON

In the rebuttal period, Craig easily dispatches De Sousa's arguments, mostly because the freethinker failed to frame any of them in any sort of rigorous way. De Sousa has a bit of a go at refuting Craig's usual five arguments, but he is far too long-winded to do so at all effectively. He does at one point make an interesting case regarding Craig's misuse of prior probabilities in the fine-tuning argument, but doesn't quite stick it.

The cross-ex was, as usual, more entertaining and enlightening than the openings and rebuttals, but even so De Sousa fails to acquit himself as should one armed with better facts and arguments. Alas!
  • Unbeliever rating: 2.75

  • Believer rating: 4.25

  • Overall rating: 3.5