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.