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