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.