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.