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.

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