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