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.