Sunday, November 28, 2010

Muehlhauser vs. Gressis on CPBD podcast

I don't usually review podcasts on this blog, but this episode of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot is absolutely worth a listen. It is probably best characterized as a causal discussion about the respective worldviews of Christian theism and metaphysical naturalism, but with a much lower level of animosity and significantly higher level of philosophical rigor than one can reasonably expect from a formal debate. The two interlocutors go back and forth, discussing sundry topics and questioning each other freely and spontaneously. I'd prefer to hear more debates adopt this format, at least for 20-30 minutes following the opening statements.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Kaminer vs Otitoju on the IQ2 (podcast)

Freethinker and civil rights activist Wendy Kaminer makes a clear and cogent argument for untrammeled free speech, while Femi Otitoju makes the consequentialist argument that hate speech leads to more hate and invariable more hateful and hurtful actions. Strong arguments presented well from on both sides, on a vital issue which should be of interest to all right thinking people.

Alas, it is a rather short debate (didn't even last for my entire one-way commute) but certainly it is well worth the time.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dillahunty vs. Jacobse at UMBC

This debate flows primarily from a difference of opinion regarding what the word 'morality' should be taken to mean. Predictably enough, the atheist believes that morality is an instrumental package of norms useful for humans to get along and thrive on Earth, while the theist believes that morality is a set of transcendent truths which exist in a supernatural realm accessible to us only by mystical experience or divine revelation. They each make their respective cases reasonably well, but for the most part they are talking past each other about different ideas.

Both speakers are notably jolly and upbeat, which is a nice change of pace. Possibly this is the most friendly debate I've seen since the one at UCO back in 2003. I'm sure that I've never heard someone accuse atheism of the 20th century genocides in such a friendly and deferential manner as Fr. Jacobse.

On a side note, the video production values on this are through the roof for a student-produced YouTube video, which bumps my rating up just a bit.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Law vs. Plantinga on the radio (UK)

Alvin Plantinga leads with the idea that naturalism does not entail the observation of fine-tuning in the universe, whereas theism makes fine-tuning probable. I have to point out here that (as brilliant as he is) he gets this perfectly backwards. On naturalistic monism, observers cannot possibly exist unless at least part of some universe is so finely tuned as to allow for them to evolve naturally. On theistic dualism, observers exist as minds entirely apart from any sort of fine-tuned cosmos which might allow for the possibilty of organic matter walking about and pumping blood to their brains. In short, naturalism necessitates the observation of fine tuning, if naturalism is true and any actual observers exist at any time and place in any universe. By contrast, theism is not linked to fine-tuning at all, unless we include the downright bizarre premise that the god of theism is a bit of a deistic chap, and prefers to create a seemingly naturalistic world which runs all by itself according to fixed natural laws.

That aside, Plantinga came on the show not to confuse the listeners about cosmological fine-tuning, but rather to confuse them about the relationship between metaphysical naturalism, evolution, and the probability of some animals evolving reliable cognitive mechanisms. This he does quite well, by repeating the startingly claim that animal behavior is causally unrelated to animal beliefs about the world. Why does a cat or a dog or a human jump back and start pumping adrenaline when confronted by, say, an angry mama grizzly bear? Surely it is not because they believe themselves to be in danger. It must be for some other reason driven by neurology alone, without any regard to subjective experience. This decoupling of subjective experience and beliefs from behavior is the sort of thing that only a philosopher would dare to do, as it runs completely contrary to our actual experience of how these things really work.

Enough ranting. This was a reasonably good introduction to the evolutionary argument against naturalism, and one which I'd recommend if only because one is bound to run across this argument from time to time.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Shermer & Ridley & Dawkins vs. Craig & Wolpe & Geivett in la ciudad de las ideas (Puebla, Mexico)

This panel debate (YouTube) is unique in several ways. Firstly, it is bilingual, with direction and narration in Spanish, and substantive debate in English. Secondly, it features three men on each side but only gives each one a few minutes at a time to make an argument. Thirdly, the speakers talk in front of what appears to be the world's largest 1980's themed screensaver including flying polygons. Finally, the lectern is in a boxing ring. No, really, an effing boxing ring. Evidently the Mexican version of TED talks have quite a bit more flair than the sober lectures they do here in the Estados Unidos.

Matt Ridley leads off with a decent joke which doesn't translate well to those unfamiliar with the idiomatic English meaning of "recreational area" and then briefly makes the case for emergent order as opposed to top-down design, in both society and the biosphere more generally.

Craig, as per usual, makes the case that purposes which don't last forever just aren't worth having, that if we don't have a holy being to obey and worship forever, then everything must be meaningless. Evidently, he values servitude so much as to make it the end all be all of human existence. He goes on to (somewhat idiosyncratically) define "evil" in strictly theistic terms and then smoothly equivocate by claiming that atheist must therefore claim that there is no evil in the world, in the ordinary sense of the term. Clever rhetoric, to be sure, but as a philosopher he has to know better than to think this is a valid mode of argument. Finally, he briefly lists his usual five arguments for theism.

Shermer wastes some time upfront by talking about wishful thinking and the prosperity gospel, but then gets into his own case for purpose in a naturalistic world. He lists a few purposes which available to ordinary people leading ordinary lives without the hope of eternal life, and he does so fairly well. He might ought to have pointed out that most people spend the vast majority of their lives pursuing such ordinary purposes, rather than grovelling at the feet of their favored deity.

Wolpe argues that the debate ought to be about whether the universe as a whole has a purpose, and suggests (without a hint of embarrassment) that the purpose of the entire cosmos and its billions of galaxies and quadrillions of stars was to eventually produce people who will come to know and worship the God of the Hebrews, which just happens to be the his personal area of expertise. He does have one memorable line, though, in which he says that one might say the universe has purpose in the sense that the kitchen has a meal, that is, it has all the ingredients needed to create purposes. True, and what is more, a decent summary of the thrust of Shermer's talk.

Dawkins leads by insultingly comparing the opposing panel to children who have never grown out of the having of believing that everything can be explained in terms of what purpose it serves. He then gets into the nature of designed objects, which have a given purpose, and designoid objects, which merely seem to have one. At one point he accidentally gives away the farm by calling natural selection a "brilliant process" which makes it seem purposive, unless he meant "brilliant" in some sense more about luminosity than intelligence. Overall, he makes a decent case that we can explain everything in the universe without resorting to any universal purposes, especially with respect to living things.

They then go into rebuttal period, in which it becomes clear that the theistic bench has put somewhat more time into teamwork and planning so as to create a flow between their arguments with little overlap. Nevertheless, both sides have a go at the other side, and as usual, Craig is polished and precise, while Dawkins is scathing and condescending.

Overall, this is a must-see debate, no because of the substance so much as the style. I personally prefer dry and cultured Oxford style debate, but as they say, en la variedad está el gusto.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

IQ2 panel debate - Is Britian becoming anti-Christian?

While this debate will primarily interest citizens of the UK, I recommend it for everyone, because the challenges faces by Britian now will eventually have to be met by other socieities in the process of secularising.

George Carey
Focuses on specific examples of Christians being disallowed special exceptions from laws of general application in Britian.

Geoffrey Robertson
Makes the case for equal treatment, and argues that Christians often think the are being persecuted by the state whenever it is merely "insuring that idiosyncratic and bigoted Christians don't bash gays and other minorities at the public expense."

Howard Jacobson
Makes a witty and humorous case that Christianity singlehandedly civilised pagan Britian. You can tell he is an effective author and that he wrote all his comments out in advance.

Matthew Parris
Leads off with a few quips and then launches into an argument for general non-discrimination on ethnic, racial, and religious grounds, and for the historical degradation of this principle on the part of the established churches. "Bashed indeed. We gays know something about being bashed." He ends with "Give them the tolerance that they would never give you, but give them not an inch more." His is the most persuasive speech of this debate, IMHO.

Peter Hitchens
First he humorously mocks his opponents, and goes on to lead the audience in prayer and exhort them to humlity. From there it gets even more bizarre.

Antony Sutch
This benedictine monk makes an argument which has to be heard to be believed. He asserts that Britian is a generally tolerant place, and not to worry overmuch about the increasing diversity of thought and belief.

The listener can safely skip past the Q&A period, which was most often either pointless or embarrassing (or both) and move on the closing statements at 1:33 or thereabouts.

This debate provides Americans with a glimpse of the rearguard action that Christians will invariably mount in the face of increasing societal and political irrelevance, which we've already seen here in popular works such as this one.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Hitchens vs. Dembski in Plano, TX

Hitchens makes the usual case that the vicissitudes and suffering on Earth make far more sense on naturalism than on classical theism. He also appeals to certain historical persons and ideas, as is his wont. I didn't find anything particularly striking about how Hitch makes his case, but I've seen him so many times now that it's all starting to blend together, and since there is no evident structure to his rhetoric it is difficult to summarize. At this point, I would challenge anyone to create a formally valid and sound argument using only lines from Hitchen's opening statements, in any order. Seriously, I don't think it can be done.

Dembski does his usual tutorial on intelligent design, and goes on to make the argument that if there is no divine lawgiver then there cannot be any "objective" values that matter at all, to anyone, anywhere. By objective, presumably he does not mean that which is the property of an object (thing) rather than a subject (mind), since only minds can even ponder moral propositions, much less have ideas about which moral statements are true. He must mean "non-human" values, but those don't sound appealing to anyone. Perhaps he means "divine" values, in which case he is simply begging the question. He also makes a few other question-begging arguments, such as God is good because "good" means whatever God wants. At this point, I can imagine the schoolchildren in the audience sending little "ROFLMAO" texts to one another.

As usual, Hitchens excels in rebuttal. "Morality doesn't come in tablet form" is only one of many memorable quips. The Q&A was acceptable, but overall I found this to be a wearying debate, and isn't worth seeing unless you are somehow unfamiliar with the ideas of these two debaters.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Fox vs. Behe on the radio (UK)

I really shouldn't review this show on this blog, because it was a debate between Christians over which particular view of creationism one should take. Keith Fox argued for evolution acting on countless generations of life over eons of time via natural selection acting upon random divinely-permitted mutations within a divinely-finely-tuned universe, while Michael Behe argued for evolution acting on countless generations of life over eons of time via natural selection acting upon non-random divinely-directed mutations within a divinely-finely-tuned universe.

Um, yeah. Huge theoretical gap there, with loads of room for argument. You may safely skip this one, unless you want to hear two biochemists arguing about theology.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Ahmed vs. Peoples on the radio (UK)

This debate focuses on a moral argument for the existence of god, and ultimately comes down to an inference from moral intuitions to universal divine commands or divine moral preferences.

Cambridge philosopher Arif Ahmed debated Christian philosopher Glenn Peoples on Premier Christian Radio, on the topic of moral arguments for god.

Roughly, Peoples makes following argument:

1) If moral facts exist, they must have either a supernatural or natural basis
2) Moral facts do not have a natural basis
3) :. If moral facts exists, they have a supernatural basis
4) The most plausible supernatural basis of moral facts is a supernatural person
5) :. If moral facts exist, they are based in a supernatural person
6) Moral facts exist
7) :. A supernatural person exists

Editorial comment - This argument heavily loads the dice by taking moral facts to be propositions in the mind of a divine being, and then equivocating between moral facts (thus defined) and the ordinary human moral intuitions shared by most everyone who is not a sociopath. The obvious naturalist response might be that moral facts ought to be derived from causal connections between certain actions and their probable results.

Ahmed retorts to Peoples formal argument firstly by denying premise (6), explicating his honest (if highly unpopular) view that moral facts are not really facts in the ordinary sense of the term. He basically makes the case that all actual moral imperatives are actually of the form "If you desire X then you should do Y." They both back and forth on the nature of morality for quite a bit, calming, politely, and without zinging around cheap one-liners (ala Hitchens or D'Souza). Incidentally, Peoples fulfills Godwin's Law around 20 minutes in.

Overall, this was a high-quality philosophical debate and discussion, relatively free of rhetorical flourishes, personal attacks, and other extraneous verbiage. Both guests are focused and well versed on the topic at hand, while the radio host is clearly and humorously out of his depth. Definitely this one is recommended listening.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Beahan vs. Knechtle in East Lansing, MI

This debate between apologist Cliffe Knechtle and atheist Jeremy Beahan took place at Michigan State University and ranged over a vast variety of topics, from general arguments for and against theism, to free will, to incompatible properties of god, to in-depth historical analysis of the gospels and other historical sources. Almost all of the usual arguments are covered, and then some, because the debate format demanded short bursts from each speaker under very strict timekeeping.

For once, an atheist clearly owns an apologist, and that despite the apologist's usual appeals to cleverly unsound arguments, irrational intuitions, and personal outrage. Jeremy calmly and methodically dismantles Knechtle's arguments, quickly and effectively showing precisely where such arguments are either invalid or unsound. Accordingly, he has been added to my atheist debate dream team, alongside Arif Ahmed.

This is a must hear debate, and the only thing keeping it from a 5 star rating is that Knechtle occasionally makes some of his arguments in a weaker form than I'm used to hearing elsewhere. You should probably listen to it now. Share and enjoy!
  • Overall rating: 4.5
  • Believer rating: 4.0
  • Unbeliever rating: 5.0

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Melville vs. McGrath on the radio (UK)

For the most part this episode (mp3) fails to spark an actual debate, certainly not a debate about the so-called new atheism. Melville, the atheist proponent, argues primarily for secularism. He also dismisses Sam Harris as a reactionary Islamophobe before going on to characterize an Islamic upbringing in which one book has all the answers as "a nightmare scenario." Melville also criticizes prominent atheists for being too shrill and blunt, which is just accomodationist drivel. Around 45 minutes in, the Melville and McGrath finally get around to having something resembling a debate, but not about the subject of the new atheism, and even then Melville remphasizes that he is not defending any particular truth.

I'd have preferred a discussion which focused on some particular truth claim and examined the evidence for and against it. Perhaps that happened once or twice in this episode, but only incidentally and in passing.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Penrose vs. McGrath on the radio (UK)

This episode was about theology, cosmology, and Stephen Hawking's new book, and featured two bright men who really know their stuff.

They talk about physics and theories of cosmology for a bit, and it's fun to hear, but this show doesn't quite rise to the level of a theological debate, because the disputants don't really get into it over what (if anything) we can say about the causes of the material universe from what we think we know about the universe itself. They touch on M-theories, cyclic cosmological theories, the anthropic principle, and various other fascinating ideas, but don't make an attempt to estimate the conditional probability that the universe might exist (in its current form) either with or without transcendental fine-tuning or some other divine design.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

McCormick vs. DiSilvestro at CSUS (Debate #3)

This time, McCormick leads off with the question of whether the historical evidence of Jesus' miracles could be much improved over the current state of affairs. Here are a few suggested improvements in the historical evidence:

10) Use objective impartial observers
9) More evidence
8) Go big (bigger than withered figs and empty tombs)
7) Take human fallibility into account
6) Act Almighty, rather than tribal or provincial
5) Good fortune does not make for a miracle
4) Powerful feelings are not evidence of miracles
3) Pick a literate and educated audience for miracles
2) Avoid the placebo effect
1) Miracles should not look like magic tricks

Obviously, some of these are redundant and are meant to round out the list.   It seems that 1, 6, 8, and 9 could all readily be filed under the single heading "Make your miracles incontrovertible and accessible to all humankind."  For example, a massive Tetragrammaton flashing forth from dozens of supernovae might easily satisfy all four of these criteria, especially if the Lord were to put one over each celestial pole.

In any event, McCormick's conclusion is that we are reasonable in expecting far more convincing miracles from an Almighty God who really wants to get His Holy Word out to all the masses of humanity.

DiSilvestro contends that God probably has good reasons for failing to provide more persuasive miracles than those we find in the Christian Scriptures.  His first reason is that people will not find necessarily more persuasive miracles more persuasive.  His second reason is that providing indubitable miracles might "break a person or damage them in other ways."  In support, he quotes a passage from the Screwtape Letters.  Finally, DiSilvestro argues that the miracles and scriptures that God has revealed really are enough to allow for rational belief therein, especially when augmented by direct personal experience of God.  He then closes with yet another glurge tale, this time from India. I suppse he has no idea how silly this makes him sound to skeptics.

After these openings, they go straight to Q&A, which wasn't that bad.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

McCormick vs. DiSilvestro at CSUS (Debate #2)

Debate #2 – From Lourdes to Lazarus (Miracles and Probability)

McCormick leads off with some basics of NT scholarship: Who wrote what, when, with which sources, and such like. He goes on to grant, for the sake of argument, a number of miraculous events at Lourdes, France. He charitably calculates the ratio of actual miracles to claimed miracles to be .0000165, and thus deduces a provisional probability of eyewitnesses accurately reporting miracles. He then points out that generally illiterate and uneducated Iron Age peoples are far more credulous and apt to accept miracle claims than we moderns who have been inculcated with scientific skepticism, and provides a few more reasons not to believe the disciples' testimonies in particular, e.g. bereavement hallucinations, Asch effects, attention effects, and other demonstrable psychological issues which effect the reliability of eyewitness testimony. He goes on to talk for a bit about the gospel sources themselves and how they came together over a lengthy process of canonization. He wraps up with a slide called “An Amplification of Doubts” which is doubtlessly one of the most powerful visual summaries of the arguments against the resurrection of Jesus I've ever seen: Click here.

DiSilvestro again tries to draw convincing distinctions (relevant disanalogies) between Lourdes and the Biblical resurrection accounts, such as the idea that apostles were martyred for their beliefs. He does not cite particular martyrologies as sources, or mention when they were written or by whom. Speaking of disanalogies, he also makes up a few of analogies of his own, one from NBA all-stars, one from the beliefs of students or professors, one from innocent convicts, and one from pillow talk. None of these analogies come remotely close to the .0000165 ratio of reliable to unreliable reports, so they can all be readily dismissed. He does eventually hit this issue head on, however, claiming that miracle reports are far more reliable than McCormick has claimed, citing to various anecdotal and personal experiences. I found it a bit disturbing to hear a philosopher basically just passing on glurge stories. I'm downgrading the rating on this one just because the theist comes off as just plain silly for an extended period at this point, and this proves neither enjoyable nor enlightening. Well, okay, the supernatural blinking “PORNOGRAPHY” sign was kind of fun.

Monday, September 20, 2010

McCormick vs. DiSilvestro at CSUS (Debate #1)

Debate #1 – Salem vs. Jerusalem (Miracles and Historical Evidence)

McCormick leads off with one of the most impressive take-downs of the gospel narrative I've ever witnessed, and bear in mind that by now I've watched over a hundred debates covering this subject at least in part. He compares the alleged miracles at Jerusalem (empty tomb and other events on account of supernatural magic) with the alleged miracles at Salem (sundry persons claiming they were bewitched in various ways) and concludes that by using the standard historical criteria one can be far more confident of the veracity of magic in Salem than in Jerusalem. He makes his case thoughtfully and thoroughly, and challenges the audience either to accept the magical hypothesis in both case, reject it in both cases, or else demonstrate why the evidence for Jerusalem is somehow stronger than that of Salem.

DiSilvestro, for his part, makes the same case as in his earlier debate, based on four alleged facts from the NT sources:

1)Jesus was buried honorably in the Arimathean’s tomb
2)On the following Sunday this very same tomb was found empty
3)Eyewitnesses claimed to have seen Jesus after his death and burial
4)The original disciples believed that Jesus arose from the dead

DiSilvestro goes on to make a case that demons and witches are real. I could be wrong, but it looks to me like McCormick has him in the corner, on the ropes, biting the bullet at this point. He then makes an argument that one ought to take the miracles of Jerusalem more seriously than those of Salem, for three reasons:

1) Disciples suffered for their own beliefs, the witches suffered for other's beliefs
2) There were hundreds of eyewitnesses in Jerusalem (if you believe Paul)
3) The Salem community repented of their beliefs and injustices

DiSilvestro closes with bit of a homily and gospel preaching.

This may be one of the first debates in which I've seen the minimal facts argument thoroughly flattened even though it was effectively presented. It seems that the best way to counter such an argument is not with an appeal to gospel discrepancies (as Ehrman usually does) or historical methodology in theory (as many others do) but rather by illustrating how historical methodology works in practice by applying the loose criteria of Biblical scholarship to more recent and well-documented events.

This one is a must see. Great job by both debaters!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Hitchens vs. Berlinski in Birmingham, AL

Christopher Hitchens versus David Berlinski. Need I say more? The most ostentatiously highbrow debate about theism and atheism of the 21st century, and it transpired, of all places, in Alabama. I know, right?

Both men manage to impart such a degree of authoritative superciliousness to their voices as to make weak-minded undergrads instantly believe everything either one has to say. This would blow out the motherboard of an early-model electric monk, seeing as they were not capable of simultaneously holding incompatible beliefs to be true. Undergrads are, thankfully, far more mentally flexible than electric monks.

Berlinski essentially makes the case that without the fear of God to hold people in check, they would be capable of all of the atrocities we saw from the various mass-murdering Communist regimes. Hitchens retorts that once people believe they have God on their side, they are equally capable of horrific acts of torture and murder. Both men are right, of course, but neither one quite draws out the underlying commonality between Hitler's purges, Stalin's purges, Pol Pot's purges, Torquemada's purges, and centuries of European witch hunts, presumably because they are each interested in making the case that the other side's mass persecutions and murders are somehow more significant.

Just to be clear, I will go ahead and state the obvious: People who faithfully follow a system of faith-based beliefs and believe they are the bearers of the One True Way will be willing commit any crime, however horrific, if it is justified within the faith which they hold. This goes for Fascism, Communism, Medieval Catholicism, Christian Nationalism, ancient Judaism, modern Wahhabism, and just about any other politicized philosophy which separates out a Chosen People and justifies their persecution of the Other in the name of the One True Way. Whether the faithful are blindly following the commands of gods or men doesn't really matter, what matters is that they are following blindly.

Okay, enough of my editorializing. I just wanted to make it quite clear why I found both of these debaters unpersuasive in their respective attempts to declare either theism or atheism to be invariably poisonous. Hitchens makes the case that theism inevitably leads to the worst atrocities of worst theistic regimes, while Berlinski makes the case that atheism inevitably leads to the worst atrocities of worst atheistic regimes. Neither one is nearly persuasive, but they both sound terribly smooth and learned and witty and cultured. If you value style at least as much as substance, this is the one to see. Otherwise, you can give it a miss.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Buckner vs. Tzortzis in London

Debate: Islam or Atheism? With Hamza Tzortzis & Ed Buckner on Vimeo

This is a must see debate, if only to get a sense of how Islamic apologetics compare to Christian and Jewish apologetics, with which English speakers are doubtlessly more

Tzortzis runs an argument for the existence of God, which is not terribly original or interesting. He then provides two arguments for the truth of Islam, the second of which runs parallel to that of C.S. Lewis regarding Jesus, claiming that the Prophet is either deluded, a liar, or else he is telling the truth. His most interesting and detailed argument, however, was that the Arabic text of the Quran is so downright amazing that it is evidently a miracle in and of itself, as attested by experts in the relevant field of Arabic textual analysis. At the end of his opening statement, he pulls a dirty WLC-style debate trick, and requests that his opponent tear down his arguments for Islam before building an argument for atheism. Overall, though, he comes off as quite poised and polished.

Buckner leads with several minutes of ingratiation, which were a few minutes too many. Seems like a nice guy, though. Eventually, he gets down to a handful of briefly stated arguments, including an argument from divine hiddenness, theological incoherence, from evil and suffering, from the dominance of demography in theological biogeography, and a few others, none of which are fleshed out enough to make sense if you aren't already familiar with them, and none of which are stated in a deductively valid form.

On rebuttal, Tzortzis hammers away at Buckner, directly and forcefully countering his arguments. Buckner makes a pathetic attempt to counter Tzortzis, and ultimately fails to mount anything resembling a convincing counter-argument. I suspect that the mostly-Islamic audience went away happy and assured that their faith is far more rational than disbelief.

Three lessons may be learned from this debate:
1) Know your opponent's arguments in advance so that you can prepare your counterarguments
2) Do not debate against some religion unless you are familiar with it and the peculiar arguments that it puts forward
3) If your name is Ed Buckner, get off the debate circuit altogether.

Overall rating: 3.0
Believer rating: 4.5
Unbeliever rating: 1.5

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bradley vs Flannagan at Auckland U. (NZ)

Ray Bradley comes not to praise God, but to bury Him. He does a bang up job of it, slowly grinding through the worst bits of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures and demonstrating the total depravity and utter ruthlessness thereof. He lectures phlegmatically onward, building up a towering Argument from Evil firmly rooted in scripture and history. He characterizes the God of Abraham as “that than which no viler can be conceived” and does a fairly decent job of backing up his thesis.

Bradley then lays out the following statements for consideration (paraphrasing):
  1. What God proposes for our beliefs and actions are what we ought to believe and act upon

  2. In His Holy Scriptures, God commands various atrocities
    (e.g. killing witches, gays, Canaanites, etc.)

  3. It is morally wrong to command, cause, or condone such atrocities

  4. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good (definitional premise)

  5. A morally perfect being wouldn’t order us to do anything which is morally wrong

Bradley contends that sincere theists have to deny at least one of these premises, for the sake of logical consistency, and then unpacks the consequences of denying any of these premises. At the end of his opening, he challenges his interlocutor (and the audience member) to deny one of the five premises and deal with the consequences.

Matt Flannagan, for his part, defends a version of divine command theory (DCT), and claims that premise (3) assumes to the contrary that God is a moral agent having moral duties, rather than being a moral lawgiver whose commands are moral no matter how arbitrary or harmful they seem to us. He sort of paints himself into a corner here, falling firmly upon one horn of the Euthyphro dilemma. He also tries to reframe the genocidal and homicidal divine commands of the OT Scripture as wholly hyperbolic, and the NT references to a “Lake of Fire” as mere metaphysical metaphor. Nice try, Matt, but that's a no-go unless you can produce evidence that these passages were indeed taken as metaphors by their original audience in the relevant cultural context. For example, did the early Church Fathers who read the NT books in original Greek see it as a metaphor or parable? If so, who did so and in which epistle do they make this clear? Instead of taking such an honest approach, Flannagan cites to modern scholars who have an obvious motivation to soften the harshness of these ancient passages.

During their respective rebuttals, both men do a fine job of contending that the other debater fails to engage with their own particular conception of God and ethics, which seems about right. This is the only notably weak feature of this debate: Each man has defined the words “God” and “morality” in different ways, and thus they talk past each other a bit when arguing about the putative relationship between the two. Overall, though, this is a MUST SEE DEBATE.

Share and enjoy!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Frame vs. McGrath on the radio (UK)

This debate between Martyn Frame and Joanna Collicut McGrath centered on the question of whether religious beliefs are a trick of the mind, that is, do they arise from inherent quirks in human thinking or do they result from the proper apprehension of actual supernatural reality? Both interlocutors are trained in psychology, but alas, neither one is an experienced religious visionary.

Frame contends that our religious beliefs are best explained in terms of a natural human propensity to over-detect for agency in nature, and to process agency-based explanations in a separate way from mechanical causal explanations. McGrath concedes some of the psychological phenomena mentioned by Frame, but will not allow that theism is so readily dismissed. Then they have a pleasant if a bit rambling discussion on such matters for about an hour. This one really isn't a debate, more like conversational easy listening. Still, they do make the occasional good point and there is a bit of give and take.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Blackmore vs. Foster on the radio (UK)

I have to give Justin Brierly credit for getting two serious experts in the studio this time around, and giving them the chance to discuss in some detail about the science and subjectivity of mystical experience. Also, he gets credit for the only mention of the phrase "anally raped by dinosaurs" on Christian radio, anywhere at any time.

Charles Foster argues for the veracity of personal religious experience, describing his own encounter with the numinous and saying that "I came away full of something..." Here, we can all agree, though perhaps not as to particulars. He also argues that the correlation of particular brain states with particular mental states (e.g. mystical experiences) ought not be taken to mean that the mind is merely a function of brain activity as opposed to the experience of a genuine transcendence. Sue Blackmore argues that certain kinds of mental states can be artificially induced, thus giving us a reason to believe that mystical mental states are in fact the result of unusual but natural neurological conditions. They then get down into the details, and have a really decent give and take, backing up their arguments with peer reviewed studies and personal experiences. They talk of subjective experiences, the nature of the self and the possible explanatory power thereof. Overall, it is an excellent discussion and one well worth hearing.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Stenger vs. Bartholomew on the radio (UK)

Because this exchange was done in a radio show format, the two disputants don't get around to making their cases or debating one another for quite awhile. I find this mildly annoying especially when I cannot easily fast-forward, as when driving.

Bartholomew leads with the idea of a randomized controlled trial, provides a reasonably concise and accurate thereof, and points out that only a couple of the formal studies of intercessory prayer quite fit the bill. He then boldly states “It seems to me quite unjustified to suppose that God will be manipulated by our prayers. If He were, He wouldn’t be God in the sense that I understand him.” Bartholomew thus disregards the entire concept of intercessory prayer, without so much as a nod to the many Scriptural references assuring true believers that their prayers will be heard and answered. For example, in James 5 the author of the epistle makes it clear that sincerely offered (and thoroughly lubricated) prayers for healing will prove effective. Of course, if this was truly so, we should find a notable lack of Christians in hospital, but it turns out they are hospitalized just about as often as anyone else.

Stenger counters by pointing out that while Bartholomew hastily dismisses a negative result, he would have happily accepted a positive result. They go back and forth on this for a bit, and Stenger holds his own. Bartholomew goes on to say that he cannot think of anything that would count as clear scientific evidence of a deity, which seems to me to indicate that he’s trying to craft a god hypothesis which is both unverifiable and unfalsifiable. Such a markedly sloppy approach to truth should militate against taking him too seriously, however sonorous and distinguished he sounds on the radio.

They cover a few other topics for awhile, but the debate fails to really get off the ground because Bartholomew insists that god would never provide the sort of evidence that would readily convince scientifically-minded people. Naturally, he doesn’t say what the explanation should be for such thoroughgoing divine hiddenness, but instead seems to assume that god is a bit of a non-interventionist, despite various Scriptural claims strongly to the contrary. In short, it seems that Stenger takes the God of the Bible far more seriously than Bartholomew does.

Overall, I was disappointed to have two very fine scientific minds in the studio without getting the chance to hear them go over anything much resembling scientific evidence.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Conradi vs. Paget in Sydney, Austrailia

This debate may not be the most substantive or best argued one on the internets, but it is certainly a worthy listen. At least three things set it apart from the others:

1) Not the same old voices making the same exact arguments you've heard so many times before.
2) Not the usual audience, but rather a rowdy group of Aussie sceptics who laugh out loud.
3) Not the usual debate framing of vague proposition vs. its negation, but rather a head-to-head between two very different worldviews

(Bonus: Aussie accents!)

Paget promotes universal fine-tuning and makes an argument from Christian Scripture, basically saying that the texts make more sense in terms of historiography rather than mythmaking. Conradi does a fairly good job of picking apart Paget's arguments, and makes the case for withholding assent to any of Paget's generally theistic or specifically Christian claims.

Around 27 minutes in, Conradi spins out a parody of the major points of Christian dogma which is both spot-on and hilarious. That bit alone was worth the price of admission. Towards the end, though, he overplays the parallels between Jesus and the other dying-and-rising gods of the contemporary mystery cults, without so much as referencing original sources. That part was a bit embarrassing. Overall, though, it was a good performance from both sides.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Rutherford vs. Hitchens on the radio (UK)

Adam Rutherford and Peter Hitchens discussed various matter on the radio show Unbelievable on Premier Christian Radio.

They don't actually get into the God question right off, but instead discuss the respective values of Anglicanism and Secularism. This is a cordial but not particularly interesting discussion, especially for listeners outside of the UK.

About 18 minutes in, Peter Hitchens makes some remarkably broad claims on behalf of all of the world's Christians. For example:

Atheists constantly assume things about Christians . . . they think Christians think there can be no morality of any kind without God, which we don't think.
Really? Evidently, Peter Hitchens is unfamiliar with any number of Christian apologists (many of whom far more generally well known than himself) who say precisely such things. No matter how cultured your voice and how Oxford your intonation, you sound like an idiot when you say something this badly wrong.

There is so much diversity within Christianity that it is foolish to make blanket claims of any sort about what Christians do and believe, but in this particular case it is doubly so, because the argument that morality is contingent upon God is quite common in Christian apologetics (from Augustine to C.S. Lewis to Bill Craig) and indeed the whole of divine command theory rests upon the assumption that moral commands exist not as propositional truths about the world, but rather as imperatives handed down from another realm altogether. Rutherford sort of gets around to making this point, but not particularly well. A bit later, Hitchens implies that the source of moral authority for British society is (and should remain) rooted in Biblical doctrine, thus hinting at divine command theory himself.

They go on about abortion for awhile, and this segment proves wholly unenlightening, because the speakers pretty much talk past each other and Hitchens gets all sanctimonious and huffy. Also, this is the bit where the show runs afoul of Godwin's law. Annoying.

They then go on for a bit about the proper role of Christianity in public policy and in defining the British character. Here, Hitchens manages to sound more convincing than his opponent, even though they are both avoiding bringing up any sort of relevant evidence.

Overall, this debate generated more heat than light, as one might well expect for a radio talk show. Skip this one unless you've nothing else to do.

  • Unbeliever rating: 2.0 stars
  • Believer rating: 2.5 stars
  • Overall rating: 2.5 stars

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hitchens vs. Haldane at Oxford University

Christopher Hitchens debated John Haldane on the topic of "Secularism and Faith in the Public Square" at Oxford (link). The debate was originally supposed to address whether it would be better to choose a secularist or faith-based approach to public policy.

Staying closely on topic, Hitchens describes and acclaims the exceptional American experiment of strictly separating church and state, and goes on to make the case that the most secular nations are (not coincidentally) the most free and prosperous. Naturally, he also takes a bit of time to recite a few of the abuses to which the priestly classes are prone when they are provided political power.

Haldane, for his part, lays out a 'structural map' in the vaguest possible terms, and manages somehow to say very little of consequence a rather learned way. He separates procedural values from substantive values, and notes that we as a society must have a conception of the good, but we cannot get there because many disagree on significant ethical issues. He also claims that fundamental moral notions cannot be grounded in secular moral philosophy but may easily be grounded in the idea that humans are created in the image of a god, but fails to make any argument to show why one approach is superior to another.

On cross, Haldane goes from vague to incoherent, while Hitchens gets sharper and more cutting. At this point, one is tempted to look away from the spectacle of a clearly learned philosopher failing to stake out a position which might substantively separate him from his interlocutor. They both agree that theocracy is a terrible idea, and Haldane does not point out any specific ways in which he would like to see faith become more useful and pervasive in the public square. Nativity displays? Faith schools? Church tithes from tax dollars? For the love of your Papist God, Haldane, please make a stand somewhere and defend your side of the argument! Had he chosen to do so, they might have had an interesting back and forth.
  • Unbeliever rating: 4.5
  • Believer rating: 3.0
  • Overall rating: 3.5

Friday, May 7, 2010

Robert Price vs James White in Innisbrook, FL

I had to actually purchase this one. If you don’t want to do so, e-mail me and I’ll have you over to watch it in my living room, free of charge.

Price leads off by noting a few common apologetic arguments and take a few pokes at them. Memorably, he questions whether the early disciples were really akin a first-century Snopes, assiduously tracking down and debunking any Jesus myths which went beyond their actual experiences. He also outlines some of the processes by which pious fictions are transformed into holy writ and giving examples from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

White leads off with an argument against the principle of analogy in favor of internal consistency rather than a Bayesian approach to the a priori likelihood of seemingly miraculous events. He then has a go at Price's view of the authorship and transmission of the Biblical texts. Basically, he is saying that extraordinary claims do not require extraordinary evidence. White goes on to argue, in effect, that it is implausible and unlikely that NT authors would borrow from contemporary Greek religions, whereas it is not implausible and unlikely that actual miracles took place. He makes this argument by stealthily incorporating the principle of analogy as to the former phenomenon, while attacking the principle of analogy as to the latter. He makes a few other arguments, none of which are particularly original, and most of which are directed at tearing down Price's work rather than building an affirmative case for Biblical exceptionalism.

Overall, it was a fine debate. Both men presented some of the best available arguments for his side. I was not, however, such an amazing debate that it was worth spending actual money to watch on mp4 video. I'd advise watching the free Price and Ehrman debates online, which cover pretty much the same ground.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Law vs. Alexander on the radio (UK)

Stephen Law is a philosopher and children's author who advocates for critical thinking. Denis (rhymes with “menace”) Alexander is a brilliant professional pseudo-scientist, working within prestigious centres of academia to merge the ideas of methodological naturalism with those of theological supernaturalism. In this episode of Unbelievable, they discuss whether science has made theology superfluous by now. Or rather, they were supposed to do so. In reality, they mostly talk about philosophy of religion rather than the ongoing border disputes between the realms of science and faith.

Alexander ( claims that Paul of Tarsus was a first century Popperian, who made falsifiable claims about the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and that Christianity is generally an evidence-based faith. He goes on to make a few allusions to the fine-tuning argument, but he won’t go so far as to call it a proof. He also argues, oddly enough, that perhaps only evolution via natural selection can possibly create minds having morally significant free will.

Law ( runs his trademark Evil God Hypothesis argument, a twist upon classical theodicy which I always enjoy and admire. He also brings up a few philosophical problems with fine-tuning arguments and conceptual problems with the idea of od typically defined, “It's just conceptual gibberish as far as I can tell.”

As usual, the young host jumps in on the side of theism, making this one-on-one into a two-on-one, which is evidently how the producers of Premier Christian Radio prefer to wage intellectual battle. Next week, it will be three to one against Philip Pullman, so I suppose Stephen Law has it relatively easy by comparison.

Overall, this was a fun discussion, covering a vast range of religious philosophical issues, but alas the discussion never focused on any particular set of arguments for long enough to get past the initial stages of argument and counter-argument, and thereby dig down and expose the underlying premises upon which the interlocutors really disagree.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

McCormick vs. DiSilvestro at Bridgeway Christian Church

This is a debate between two personal friends and professional academics, and much like the Miller / George debate back in 2003 it has an unusually cordial feel to it. No cheap shots or personal jabs here, which is refreshing after listening to a few too many D'Souza debates.

Opening Statements
DiSilvestro leads with WLC's four facts supposedly established by NT sources (i.e. Paul and Mark):

1) Jesus was buried honorably in the Arimathean’s tomb
2) On the following Sunday this very same tomb was found empty
3) Eyewitnesses claimed to have seen Jesus after his death and burial
4) The original disciples believed that Jesus arose from the dead

He goes on to infer that the best explanation for these "facts" lifted from NT sources is the explanation given in the NT itself, that is, "Jesus is risen -- Halleujah!" It is somehow taken to be an excercise in logic that when one omits the resurrection from the gospels, one finds a resurrection shaped hole in the narrative. Essentially, DiSilvestro's argument is that the NT writers were documenting history rather than making myths. This strikes me as more than a bit question begging, especially since he fails to address the key problem which is how one can determine which bits of ancient writings are history and which are mythical. All told, however, he runs the so-called minimal facts argument fairly well.

McCormick leads with a general approach to determining historical veracity, with a timeline chart showing the relevant historical documents, the events they purport to depict, and the gradual process of NT canonization. He goes on to make a fairly straightforward point about signal degradation over time, using cell phone towers as an illustration, and then goes on to take a decent stab at the probability of any given miracle report being accurate. Finally, he makes a few arguments from higher Biblical scholarship as to the reliability of the gospel accounts, and then runs out of time.

Follow On Arguments
DiSilvestro runs a few typical defenses of the reliability of Christian Scripture, for example, he defends the process of canonization by discussing a few of the criteria used to select which books were included in the New Testament. He also waves away gospel inconsistencies as invariably minor and thus compatible with the discrepancies common to eyewitness accounts of the same event.

McCormick doesn’t rebut DiSilvestro but talks again of historical methodology. He does bring up a very trenchant and persuasive comparison between the testimonials of Salem witchcraft and the testimonials of Jesus’ resurrection - in both cases one might attempt to use historical resources to evaluate the truth of a supernatural claim. This particular line of debate will be pursued further at a later date.

Closing Arguments
Both debaters manage to close well and recap their arguments, though they also bring up some new points. McCormick closes on a excellent question, which was essentially whether the historical evidence is so strong as to suggest that an all-powerful deity could not have made it far more convincing.

Overall, this was a fine debate, with both sides summarizing the usual arguments. I'd love to see these guys do a few more debates.

See also:
Luke Muelhauser's review
John Loftus review

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ehrman vs. Brown in Columbus, OH

Michael Brown and Bart Ehrman debated the problem of evil at the Ohio State University in April of 2010. The audio is available from Brian Auten as an mp3.

One of the best features of this debate is that it is narrowly focused on a particular topic, which prevents a certain degree of vagueness and Gish-galloping.

Brown basically makes the case that suffering is not a problem because any given instance of suffering is instrumental to some greater good, whether that would be human free will, personal repentance, or else some unknown and unknowable divine purpose. He also defends a traditional approach to Christian scripture (e.g. he takes the Book of Job as a single narrative contra the conclusions of textual analyses) and makes the case that human sin is really the ultimate problem on Earth, leading to privation, starvation, and natural disasters and epidemics as well. He makes about as strong a case as possible, given the material that he has to work from.

Ehrman leads with the idea that the Bible is not unified in its treatment of major theological issues, including the problem of evil. He starts with the view found in Amos (and the prophets generally) that collective suffering is the result of a collective failure to follow God's commands, and exposes the collegiate audience to a few choice verses which they probably never endured in their Sunday School lessons. He goes on the outline the view of suffering found in the Book of Job, which is essentially that suffering is a test of character, and that one should never question "acts of God" understood here in the sense the phrase is usually used in insurance policies. He also points out the view of the apocalyptic books that suffering is the direct result of evil spiritual forces acting in the world. He finally makes the point that God sometimes directly intervenes to prevent human suffering, according to the Biblical accounts.

On rebuttal, both speakers go at each other with an unusual degree of unaffected passion, which makes for interesting listening. At times, this part gets painfully personal.

Overall, both speakers to a fine job of making their respective cases, but do not expect an in-depth presentation or rebuttal of the various philsophical theodicies, such as Hick's soul-making theodicy or Plantinga's assertion that it may be logically impossible to actualize a world with moral good but without moral evil. Instead, the speakers focus on real-world problems and scriptural (rather than theological) answers to those problems.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Barr vs Behe at Wheaton College

This debate between two Christian biologists is nothing worth writing home about. Behe makes the argument of the creationists cdesign proponentsists that if something is complex and functional and difficult to explain naturally that it is time to stop trying to find a natural explanation and start looking for a supernatural one. Barr, to his small credit, points out that this is a terrible idea and would have prevented all manner of scientific breakthroughs. No one, however, makes the case that methodological naturalism is a useful approach because metaphysical naturalism happens to be true, and thus the debate fails to get off the ground as a true clash of worldviews. Instead, what we have here is a debate between one Christian who argues that we should make the leap of faith to supernatural explanations as soon as we get stuck on something complex and functional, and another Christian (not even a biologist) who argues that we should make the leap of faith to supernatural explanations after doing a bit of science first. My advice is to take a pass on this giant mug of lukewarm weak tea.

Hitchens vs. D'Souza in South Bend, IN

The motion for this one was "Religion is the Problem," which somehow seems to me a bit overbroad. Doesn't really matter, though, because the interlocutors weren't too concerned with staying on topic.

Main Arguments
As one might expect, Hitchens leads with the abuses of the Catholic Church, by way of rebutting remarks made in Rome comparing the publication of atheist books to the waging of a pogrom. He notes that pogroms are not usually lead by deaf and dumb children, a somewhat unsubtle reference to the worst sexual abuses ever covered up by a major world religion. I wonder how long it took Hitch to come up with the most offensive subject he could think to bring up at a bastion of Catholic learning. Hitch goes on to run his usual arguments about the primitive origins of religion and the seemingly haphazard and chaotic nature of the universe (e.g. galaxies colliding, stars collapsing, species going extinct, etc.) and calls into question the idea that everything is created for our benefit.

D'Souza notes upfront that Hitchens' arguments don't directly address the central topic of the debate, whether religion does more good than harm. This is true, and a bit disappointing, because Hitch spent a decent portion of God is Not Great making a detailed case about how religion causes harm to societies and individuals. He then goes on to attack evolutionary biology for not yet understanding how life arose on Earth, and runs his usual knob-twiddling universal fine-tuning argument. He also runs an argument that individual acts of altruism (towards non-kin) cannot possibly have evolved, thereby implicitly assuming that every human action is genetically determined and that altruism towards non-kin cannot possibly be adaptive, and throws in the moral lawgiver argument and an appeal to popular consensus (which sounds a bit like a nod to reformed epistemology) to boot. At this point, he is pretty much Gish-galloping, raising as many arguments as possible in just a few minutes.

Rebuttal (5-mins each)
Hitchens leads with the problem of falsifiability, and hammers on that topic for a bit. D'Souza retorts that the Hebrew theory of creation was indeed falsifiable, but later scientifically verified, and that the Hebrew prophecy of a reconstituted Jewish nation-state was also fulfilled.

Overall, this was a fairly weak debate on both sides. Hitch rambles too much and D'Souza was too busy galloping to really make any detailed arguments worthy of explication and analysis. I'd skip this one and listen to other events featuring either or both of these speakers.

  • Unbeliever rating: 2.5 stars
  • Believer rating: 2.0 stars
  • Overall rating: 2.5 stars

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ehrman vs. Evans in Kansas City, MO

In this debate (video, audio) Bart Ehrman and Craig Evans debated the question "Does the New Testament Misquote Jesus" using a somewhat unusual format by which the interlocutors on both sides are asked to reply to a series of seven distinct and focused questions:

Q1. Are the gospels reliable?
Q2. Do the gospels accurately preserve the teaching of Jesus?
Q3. Do the gospels accurately preserve the activities of Jesus?
Q4. Do the gospels contain eyewitness tradition?
Q5. Do archæologists and historians use the gospels as sources?
Q6. Have the gospels been accurately preserved down through the centuries?
Q7. Do manuscript variants of the gospels effect significant Christian doctrines?

Ehrman repeatedly encourages the audience to go back and reread the gospels, carefully and in parallel, comparing the passages describing a particular story (e.g. the empty tomb narrative) across all of the available sources. He also poses a number of interesting questions for personal study, such as: If Jesus went around openly claiming to be God incarnate (as in the gospel of John) then why did the authors of the synoptics miss this important theological detail, and why was he never stoned for blasphemy? Ehrman points our various other significant discrepancies in the gospel narratives, e.g. Jesus was silent throughout the passion narrative in gMark (up until the outburst on the cross) but he behaved very differently throughout the same events as depicted in gLuke and gJohn.

Evans, for his part, essentially maintains that the gospels are essentially accurate histories, citing various Christian biblical scholars for support. He also makes a couple interesting arguments from the internal evidence of the gospels relative to the live issues in the church around the close of the first century.

I would have preferred a bit more direct cross-examination between the speakers, but the question by question format has its virtues, for example, it was refeshing that the speakers stayed closely on topic. This was overall a scholarly and polite debate, and both men fairly effectively made the strongest points available to their side. I heartily commend this one for your viewing/listening pleasure.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Livesey vs. Morgan & Pitner on the radio (UK)

In this episode of Unbelievable Gordon Livesey holds up the godless end of the discussion fairly well, but he is the only skeptic in the room for a program in which three theists talk about how their hearts (and one man's lungs) have been personally touched by Jesus. It is for the most part an exercise in personal subjectivity with little concern for objectively verifiable facts, and as much as Livesey tries to get the host and guests to engage in critical thinking, they are staunchly resistant to the idea.

Funny moment: About 38 minutes into the show the CEO guy from America runs a version of ICP's "f***ing magnets, how do they work?" appeal to one of the four fundamental forces, and goes on to 'anchor' his beliefs in the Genesis cosmogony. Ungh.,

My advice: Skip this one. There quite a few debates which feature arguments done well on both sides, and this is by no means one of them.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hitchens vs. Wolpe in Boston, MA

Rabbi David Wolpe debated Chris Hedges Christopher Hitchens on general questions of god and faith. This debate suffers from a notable lack of focus on any particular issue. Both men are in a polemical mode, trading one-liners which occasional flashes of insight. The rabbi does a surprisingly good job at wittily parrying Hitch's attacks, but ultimately they do not engage in actual dialog nor to they address any particular argument in any depth. To sum up in a single cliche, this debate generated more heat than light.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sizer-Watt vs. Grinbank in Ontario

This was a somewhat formal debate (and informal beard-off) between two young Canadian men, both familiar with the basics of philosophy and theology, but not experienced in the art of public communication.

Michael Sizer-Watt debated Mariano Grinbank not on whether any gods really exist, but on whether one can make more sense of morality by grounding it in the assumptions of either naturalism or theism. They both have a go at the question, but ultimately they both miss the mark because neither addresses the key question "Why be moral" within the framework of his own worldview. Had they done so, they might have realized that they are both talking about acting in the interest of fulfilling one's own values, but operating on very different assumptions about the nature of reality under which one might go about doing so.

Sizer-Watt starts off with a concession that it is harder to establish what is right and wrong in a naturalist paradigm than it is to simply say "Morality is doing what X says" where X is a deity or a set of deities to whom we defer. He wants to argue for an alternative theory of ethics. He then goes on to describe the results of contemporary research at the boundaries of ethics and neuroscience. This is truly fascinating stuff, but it doesn't really prove anything about the nature of morality withoout throwing in several unspoken premises, such as "If morality has characteristics X, Y, Z, then it is

Grinbank, for his part, defines morality in terms of obedience to God and goes on to argue that it can only exist if God is there to obey. Not very convincing to the truly fence-sitting agnostic.

My advice is to skip this one, unless you really dig old man beards on young men.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Shermer & Harris vs Chopra & Houston at Caltech (ABC News)

I've got to say right off that televised debates just up and wig me out. I'm not sure what it is about television which makes televised debates feel so different from ordinary debates. Maybe it's the animated watermark in the lower right corner. Possibly it is the thought of millions of pairs of eyes and ears. In any event, this debate consisted of a panel of four people, apparently chosen based on a combination of controversial ideas and sex appeal. Every panelist is given a brief period to make an opening statement.

Michael Shermer’s opening makes the case that religion is a cultural construct, as is obvious from the geographical and temporal distribution of religious ideas. He also makes an argument from the efficacy of methodological naturalism, and points out the cross-cultural tendency of human beings to over-detect agency-based explanation.

Deepak Chopra leads with a nod in the direction of science followed by a barrage of rather fuzzily-defined terms, such as “infinite consciousness” and “agent of downward causation.” He also alludes to the apparent fine-tuning of the universe to allow for the evolution of life.
Sam Harris makes it clear upfront that he wants to talk about religion as it is usually practiced rather than the god of the philosophers, who is “so denuded of doctrine as to more or less be synonymous with pure mystery or pure information or pure energy or pure anything.” He also makes it clear that the god of the people is the one that matters in politics and policy.

Jean Houston provides a story from an old Australian aborigine woman, and another even more amusing story from an old white American woman. She also makes it clear that she reads Dante without the benefit of translation, for some reason.

After their openings, the panelists start going back and forth. Predictably enough, Chopra spews a barrage of woo-woo talk and Shermer calls him on it. Eventually, Deepak drops this gem of pseudo-profundity, “In the absence of a conscious entity, the Moon remains a radically ambiguous and ceaselessly flowing quantum soup.” The crowd audibly boos. This is the both low point and somehow the highlight of the event. Damnable televised debates.

There is a constant tension throughout this debate between the skeptic panelists and the New Age panelists over whether they should be talking about religion as it is traditionally (and most widely) practiced, or religion as it is being re-conceptualized by authors like Chopra and Houston. On this point, at least, the woo-wooers have the title of the event on their side. On the other hand, the skeptics have the fierce urgency of the now on theirs.

Throughout the event, I found myself wondering if Deepak Chopra understands and believes what he says. I also found myself wondering if Jean Houston was going to at any point say something insightful and on topic, rather than merely telling stories and dropping names. Most often, I found myself wishing that the folks at Nightline Faceoff had found Harris and Shermer a more worthy opponent or two, but then again, this is television and I ought not expect ratings-driven producers to give two shits about philosophical rigor.

  • Overall rating: 3.5

  • Believer rating: 2.5

  • Unbeliever rating: 4.5

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Barker vs Pell in Sydney, Austrailia

Former preacher Dan Barker debated Cardinal George Pell on 11 March 2010, at Macquarie University. The full video was made available on the university website.

Pell leads with the argument that maths, physics, biology, goodness, truth, and pretty much everything can only be explained in terms of a transcendent mind, inaccessible to empirical study. He does not at any point formalize his argument or attempt to show how an invisible, immaterial, atemporal, non-spatial, all-powerful mind might possibly exist, much less how it is necessary to explain everything that does. Pell manages to sound authoritative and priestly even while failing to make any weighty theological arguments, except for a poorly stated version of universal fine-tuning. He throws around probabilies without trying to explain how they were (badly) computed. In short, the guy rambles. At one point, he says something so ridiculous about evolution that a young woman in the audience bursts out giggling for just a moment before controlling herself. If ever I got to choose which theist to debate, I'd probably choose George Pell.

Barker, by contrast, makes a fairly clear case and manages to pick apart those of his opponent. He leads with a few opening arguments:

1) Evidence of mystery is not evidence for God

2) The purported properties of God are logically incompatible

3) Terms like "spiritual" and "supernatural" are ill-defined and possibly incoherent

4) Theodicy has failed, along with other efforts to meet atheological arguments

5) Religion offers scant moral guidance on the serious ethical questions of the day

6) An externally-imposed purpose of life offers slavery, rather than meaningfulness

Overall, Pell's rebuttal to Barker offers one misconstrual after another of the relevant arguments, while Barker's rebuttals to Pell are mostly spot on.

Honestly, this is one of the more one-sided debates I've seen in which the unbeliever vastly outperforms his opponent. Personally, I have some trouble enjoying one-sided contests, unless the losers are from Texas. Overall, though, this was a reasonably good debate.

Unbeliever rating: 4.5

Believer rating: 2.5

Overall rating: 3.5

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Copson vs. Robertson on the radio

Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association discusses various contemporary issues with Scottish minister and apologist David Robertson on this episode of Unbelievable on Premier Christian Radio.

Probably this discussion is primarily of interest to British listeners, since some of the issues discussed herein are not necessarily generalizable to the anglophone world at large. However, it is interesting to hear how another culture and government deals with the problem of striking a balance between faith-based ideas and shared secular values. Except for the hideous intro music, it is not a bad listen overall.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Corbett vs. McDowell at Saddleback College

This debate quickly degenerated into a one-sided debacle, in which the young aspiring apologist aggressively argues to the point, while the elderly tenured professor lackadaisically lectures on various topics more-or-less unrelated to the question under discussion, which was how morality might be grounded on either theism or atheism.

McDowell opens with three assertions which he takes as given:

1) Moral values must transcend human preferences, constituting a "law above the law"

2) Indeterministic free will (IFW) really exists and morality cannot exist without it

3) Humans are inherently valuable rather than merely cosmically insignificant

Essentially, McDowell is appealing to three intuitions about reality which are widely held (largely without much reflection) and thus he puts the skeptic in the position of arguing against propositions which most will find intuitively appealing. A perfectly practical apologetical approach, I dare say. Since Professor Corbett didn't so much as attempt to refute these assertions, I will have a go at it here.

1) To the contrary, moral values must be grounded in actual human desires in order to be at all relevant to humans. By way of example, suppose we are all simulated minds living in a simulated world created by a sadistic but superintelligent graduate student in a computer lab. Would his (undoubtedly transcendent) preference for human suffering provide us with a good reason to make each other suffer? Or would we choose to defy our creator and cling to our own values?

2) No evidence has been presented for the reality of IFW, either by McDowell or anyone else. It has neither been tested nor proven, merely asserted. Our intuition to the contrary has little value, since we are generally mistaken to assume that folk psychology can tell us anything about the way our brains actually work. To the contrary, every neurological finding to date has supported the assertion that human brains function as electrochemical machines subject to the very same laws of nature as everything else in the world.

3) To say that humans do indeed value other humans, especially those physically and genetically close to them, is uncontroversial. McDowell is not so easily satisfied, and insists that humans must be valued on a cosmic scale or else it doesn't count. Again, he offers no evidence in support of his assertion, but merely counts on the audience to make the intuitive leap. After all, who doesn't want to be inherently valuable in the cosmic scheme of things? Or, to put it another way, "Atheism is the arrogant view that billions upon of billions of galaxies were not created with us in mind."

Despite having lead with three intuitively appealing but evidentially unsupportable assertions, Corbett does little to refute his opponents case and, what is worse, does almost nothing to build a positive case for purely humanistic ethics.

Tenured profs, once again, I implore you in the name of all that is good and true, stop dabbling in debates on topics for which you have no formal training or academic preparation. It's just embarrassing. Go back to your classrooms and captive audiences.
  • Overall rating: 3.0
  • Believer rating: 4.5
  • Unbeliever rating: 1.5

p.s. For further critque of this debate and ideas about how atheists can improve their performance, please read Luke's thoughts on these matters.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Shermer vs. Robertson on the radio (UK)

Oh joy! Another debate on whether secularism is the root of all social ills. If you want to read an upbeat review of this debate, please do click here. My assessment will not be nearly so flattering to either opponent as that one.

It would seem that Pastor David Robertson is not merely a Christian and a Scotsman, but a well and True Scotsman and an authentic True Christian (TM) to boot. He also seems more than happy to toss off the spurious claim that some people just don't fit the bill, and he'll give True Christians full credit for any and all instances of moral progress in Western culture, while disclaiming the role that devout Christians played in maintaining the subjugation of slaves, women, witches, apostates, and so on. Evidently, Christianity gets the credit for everything good, while the nasty secularists get credit for everything else. Such a transparently biased rewriting of history should not go unchallenged, but it would seem that skeptical champion Michael Shermer was having an off day.

Shermer weakly contests Robertson's skewing of history, fact, and logic. He never once calls him out on the True Scotsman fallacy, nor does he do a fine job of unpacking the negative correlation between religious faith and positive social outcomes even though the only significant peer-reviewed cross-national study was favorably reported in his own magazine. Even a cursory review of the data reveals this correlation between lesser social outcomes and higher levels of faith, so one really has to wonder why Shermer fails to hammer this point home. He alludes to it only once and then fails to stem the massive tide of bullshit that Robertson brings on regarding the indisputable facts on the ground in most secular nations in Europe.

Moreover, Shermer stays relentlessly on the defensive, painstakingly explaining his own position (which he does fairly well) but never pointing out the glaring holes in his Robertson's worldview. Next time, he should ask Robertson a few pointed questions of his own. I'd be happy to suggest a few. Here's one: Has any study ever found a positive correlation between religious faith and moral behavior, at any level of social organization, among similarly situated nations or societies?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Pinker vs Hurlbut at MIT

Minding our Morals: Freedom and the Brain from The Veritas Forum on Vimeo.

(Feb 19, 2010)

Dr. Pinker starts out with characteristic lucitidy, laying his "ontological cards" on the table, as he says. He makes the case that the complexity of the brain itself explains the complexity of psychology and gives rise to subjective experience. He goes on to clearly outline the compatibilist position that free will and physical determinism coexist perfectly well, in the most sensible sense of those phrases. He then describes the nature of moral responsibility, by which he means holding other people accountable for their actions via deterrent means ranging from disapproval to incarceration or worse. He goes on to briefly outline the sociobiological origins and utility of naturalistic human morality.

Dr. Hurlbut doesn't think that science alone is an adaquate way of discussing morality, and eventually gets around to the usual notions of transcendent truth, mysterious moral awareness thereof, indeterminist free will, inherent meaning in nature, and other such ancient superstitions. He does not attempt to demonstrate that these conceptual categories have real world referents, but instead appeals to the intuitions of the audience. For once, this might be a bad idea, given the critical and analytical proclivities of MIT students. He rambles around for quite awhile, but it seems that his overarching argument was that humans are mysterious and wonderful beings, and we really ought not attempt to empircally test and deconstruct their essential characteristics such as love and empathy and morality. Or something touchy feeling like that. He closes with something like an altar call.

Their back and forth coffee chat (with audience Q&A) wends itself around various topics, and is notable in at least two respects. Pinker manages to demonstrate how to unfailingly polite even as he vigorously questions his interlocutors deeply held beliefs, and Hurlbut shows us that even reputable M.D.'s occasionally fall back on faith-healing, at least where mental health is concenred. Ok, that is just a bit unfair, but you can the idea.

Overall rating: 3.5
Believer rating: 2.5
Uneliever rating: 4.5

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Carrier vs. Licona in Topeka, KS

Mike Licona leads with a moving anecdote or two which I'll not repeat here. He then lays out a series of criteria for historical analysis. Eventually, he gets into his main historical argument, which he explicitly bases on the Pauline corpus rather than the gospels. He starts building up a minimal facts argument based on the scholarly consensus as to the crucifixion around 30CE and Paul's subsequent conversion to Christianity a couple years later. Unsurprisingly, he moves on to the various claims put forth in 1 Cor 15, which Paul seems to have received from earlier Christians. He then attempts to preempt Carrier by making an argument that the standard historical criteria make the resurrection hypothesis the best explanation of Paul's conversion and the claims that Paul reported to have received from the early church. [Editorial note: Another equally useful explanation would be that the early church sincerely believed that which it passed on to Paul, but that there were no actual eyewitnesses behind the creed, only oral traditions which grew up in precisely the same way that glurge e-mails do.]

Rick Carrier starts off with an effective illustration to help people come to see the difference between claims which require ordinary evidence "I own a car" and claims which require far more evidence "I own a nuclear missile" and claims which require the best possible evidence "I own an interstellar spacecraft." He goes on to address miracle stories in general, such as those surrounding St. Genevieve, and the reports of magical events at the Temple of Delphi and the sacred olive tree of Athens. He goes on to make a parallel between the gospels and earlier legends, such as the stories of Romulus and Osiris. He then makes the difficult argument (given the audience) that the early disciples were schizotypal visionaries, prone to subjective religions experiences unbeknownst to those of us who are psychologically healthy and normal. Specifically, he argues that Paul was preaching a gospel based on his own personal religious visions combined with his interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. He goes on to argue that Paul hallucinated precisely what he needed in order to quickly resolve his internal emotional conflict, assuming that he was riddled with guilt over his persecution of the early Christian Church.

Instead of rebuttal, this debate goes straight into cross-examination. They each ask difficult questions of the other and work hard to bolster their own case while tearing down their opponent's case. I love this format and wish that more debates would adopt something like it.

Overall, this was a tremendous debate in which both men do a fine job of making honest arguments from the best evidence available.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Thomas Dixon and Steve Fuller on the radio (UK)

In this episode of Unbelievable, Dixon and Fuller rap about the relationship between epistemology, science, and theology. Unusually, neither guest on this Christian radio show self-identifies as a Christian.

Steve Fuller alludes to something akin to the transcendental argument for deism and then takes an even more unusual tack and argues that evolutionary accounts of human reason cannot explain the creativity of mathematicians and physicists such as Isaac Newton. Thomas Dixon counters that evolution can readily account for all forms of intelligence on Earth. They go on to discuss the relationship between science, metaphysics, and theology, and the early origins of something akin to Gould's non-overlapping magisteria. It was an enjoyable and rambling discussion, but not quite a debate.

Although they cross over nearby conceptual ground, the disputants here fail to really address the question of what we'd expect human rationality to be like on the naturalistic hypothesis as opposed to the hypothesis of theistic design. On the naturalistic hypothesis, we’d expect that humans to readily comprehend human social relations, language and grammar, and intricacies of the dating and mating game, while having a much harder time understanding phenomena which have little to no direct impact on evolutionary fitness, such as cosmological origins, quantum physical models, or apophatic theology. Moreover, we’d expect humans to devote a massive amount of brainpower and resources to the problem of getting laid, since natural selection strongly favors that, at least to a point. Of course, the natural prudishness of Christian radio prevents such a frank discussion of why the human mind turned out the way that it did, but I digress.

They also talk about intelligent design for a bit, whether it could possibly be considered scientific and whether it should be taught in schools. This part covers some very well-trampled ground and wasn't terribly enlightening. Almost dozed off and wrecked my tiny Toyota. Nonetheless, it was a decent summary of the state of the problem when it comes to the relationship between public policy and scientific knowledge.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Peter Atkins vs Stephen Meyer on the radio (UK)

This wasn't so much a debate between Atkins and Meyer, as an hour-long promo for a certain propoganda film with occassional bouts of scientific talk from the token skeptic, who is placed in conversation with no less than three dedicated creationists, one of whom is the host and producer of the show. If ever I pull such a one-sided stunt on my show feel free to hang me in effigy and label me as a hypocrite and a fool. In any event, this episode was more-or-less much worth my time, because it provided a reasonably concise and accurate summary of the positions articulated by both naturalists and intelligent design creationists.